The designation of Juneteenth as a state and federal holiday has been met with both criticism and praise, leading people to discuss next steps toward racial equity.
Assistant professor of political science Timothy Lewis said members of the Black community who said they didn’t ask for Juneteenth to become a holiday are incorrect.
“This is exactly what a particular generation of African Americans asked for. Black baby boomers have been advocating for making Juneteenth a national holiday for years, I would dare say decades,” Lewis said. “One activist specifically by name of Opal Lee, who is from Texas … has been advocating for making Juneteenth a national holiday because she feels that many people don't know that the end of slavery was not the smooth transition that is taught in history books.”
Chair of local activist group Empire 13 J.D. Dixon echoed criticism others have made of the holiday being a purely symbolic action.
“Even now … you still haven't had any laws passed that changed anything from before Juneteenth was a federal holiday,” Dixon said. “So we're still in the same position that we were in before President Biden passed it last Thursday. Nothing's changed other than this federal holiday, so it's great, but that's … not going to bring systemic change to the Black community.”
Assistant professor of educational leadership J.T. Snipes said he is worried about the trivialization of Juneteenth.
“On the one hand, I am excited to see that this important milestone in American history is being honored on the federal level. There is another part of me that worries about the potential trivialization of it. The same way that we see Cinco de Mayo, the reflective holiday in which people think about culture in ways that just essentially mock Mexican culture,” Snipes said. “I just worry about there being the same sort of trivialization of [Juneteenth], as opposed to all Americans viewing it as the second founding or the true Fourth of July; the moment where all Americans were made free.”
Snipes said he has a complex relationship with Juneteenth because of its bittersweet nature.
“For me, Juneteenth was always sort of a strange holiday, where we celebrate in some ways, the maliciousness of slaveholders in succeeding territory,” Snipes said. “I read an article recently where the author talks about how it wasn't that slaves weren't aware of the Emancipation Proclamation. I mean, it was that slave owners weren't going to recognize what the federal government had dictated through the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Lewis said he believes both symbolic and substantial policy changes are necessary to move toward racial equity. One of the policies he supported — the Voting Rights Act — failed to pass the Senate.
“Poll taxes, literacy tests and other mechanisms [were] put in place to prevent voting [during Jim Crow], and they did not restrict it as if in saying you can't vote, they just made it so hard to vote that people lost motivation to be politically active in this experiment of democracy,” Lewis said. “And that's exactly what some of these Republican led legislations are doing at the state level. They're just making it so hard and so difficult to vote that people will lose the motivation to participate in democracy.”
Dixon said policies to rebuild the Black community and its infrastructure, like reparations and 100 percent forgivable home and business loans, are most important to him.
“Systemic racism, all of the race riots, massacres, that [have] happened throughout the years and decades, [have] destroyed the Black community’s infrastructure,” Dixon said. “From the Tulsa race massacre, destruction of Black businesses, to East St. Louis 1917 Race Massacre, the Black community hasn't been able to bounce back from that and from the effects of systemic racism in the laws.”
Lewis said the inclusion of white allies is necessary for progress.
“One of the biggest ways to move the needle — and this has been since the abolition of slavery — is to include white allies,” Lewis said. “There would never have been the end of slavery without white allies in the North. There would have never been the end of Jim Crow without white Freedom Riders who rode and died along the side of Black Freedom Riders. So, the inclusion of white allies will be a result of the information that comes out of making Juneteenth a national holiday.”
Dixon said Empire 13 collaborates with local organizations of white allies in their Boots to the Streets campaign.
“I have reached out and worked with a multitude of organizations, predominately white organizations, grassroot organizations like Waterloo Listens is one and Moms Demand Action,” Dixon said. “In the sense of our cause and our fight right now, allies [are] being there for us, of course, and supporting us in any way they can, standing shoulder to shoulder and [in] solidarity. We conduct community cleanups to raise awareness of disparities Black communities face due to environmental racism.”
Dixon said the visible disparities between East St. Louis, Illinois and predominantly white towns like Belleville, Illinois are due to consequences of environmental racism like the prevalence of burned down buildings, abandoned houses and decaying roads. He said many grocery stores in East St. Louis don’t have fresh produce, and in the stores that do, they are often rotting or warped.
Empire 13’s next event is Reparations Now, a march honoring lives lost in the East St. Louis Race Massacre, at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 3 at East St. Louis City Hall.