On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to deliver news of freedom to 250,000 enslaved African Americans. Historical accounts say that the news was met with mixed emotions, ranging from shock to jubilation. On that day a holiday was born that is now gaining traction across the nation.
Less discussed is that while June 19, 1865, marked the day that enslaved Texans learned of their freedom, they’d actually been entitled to it two and a half years earlier when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863. Thus began a long history of free African Americans being shortchanged by a system that still refuses to reckon with its past.
The events we are experiencing today, historically, politically, culturally, and economically, have been a long time coming. This Juneteenth, we lift up the voices of Black liberation. As echoes of “Defund the Police” reverberate in the streets and local governments begin taking steps in that direction, it is imperative that on this Juneteenth we remember the long unfulfilled promise of reparations to African Americans.
The time for reparations is now, as we see COVID-19 not only disproportionately impacting African Americans in health outcomes, but threatening dire economic consequences. Black America still has not recovered from the ravages of the 2008 economic recession and the deep and persistent wealth gap between Black and White households in the U.S.
Ever since the United States failed to fulfill Lincoln’s promise of 40 acres and a mule to the four million African Americans enslaved for 250 years, the subject of reparations has largely been avoided by lawmakers ever since.
And after that broken promise came the Jim Crow era, segregation, redlining, voter disenfranchisement, persisting disparities in education, mass incarceration, abiding violence like the Black Wall Street Massacre, and a host of other tragedies that got us where we are today—in the midst of a global pandemic in which Black Americans are dying at three times the rates of white people, and where nearly half of Black Americans said in April that someone in their household had experienced a job or wage loss due to the novel coronavirus, even though African Americans comprise only 13 percent of the population.
These numbers are dire and undoubtedly added fuel to the fire that was lit when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, and to assert that Black lives do indeed matter, regardless of whether the United States wants to live by that truth or not.
The truth is that no matter what set of data we want to focus on—the number of Black people killed by police, Black unemployment, the wealth gap—it is clear that systematically, Black lives have not been valued in the U.S. since its inception (black bodies, on the other hand, have always held value).
Yet there is reason for hope.
In just two weeks of protests, sweeping changes have rocked every aspect of American society. As a result of mass uprisings, the City of Minneapolis has vowed to disband its police department and various school districts have divested from police contracts. Ella Jones was elected as the first Black mayor of Ferguson, Missouri. IBM ended its research and sales of facial-recognition software to law enforcement, as it can be used for racial profiling. Merriam-Webster is revising its definition of “racism” to include structural racism. NASCAR has taken a stand by banning displays of Confederate flags at their races. And even Aunt Jemima has been stripped from syrup bottles.
This moment, in which the entire world has stood up to declare that Black Lives DO Matter, is ripe with possibility. And it is in this moment that local governments can begin setting the tone for what reparations could look like on a national scale, thereby committing to long-overdue economic justice for African Americans.
The good news is that there are already reparation initiatives out there. The City of Evanston, Illinois, decided in 2019 that the tax revenue from legalized marijuana (approximately 10 million dollars over 10 years) will be used towards reparations for African American residents.
The California State Assembly passed a bill last week that will create an eight-member task force to make recommendations based on studying “the institution of slavery that existed within the United States and the colonies” as well as what compensation could look like.
If the bill becomes law, California will be the first state to create an official task force studying the issue. Notably, there has been a request for this at the federal level since 1989 when the late Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) first proposed H.R. 40. The bill called for the creation of a commission to study and submit a formal report to Congress, recommending reparation proposals for African Americans. After Rep. Conyers retired, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reintroduced H.R. 40 in 2019. The bill is up for a subcommittee hearing today, on Juneteenth.
The last few months have shown us how deep the chasm of inequality is in this country, but it has also shown us that change is both a moral imperative and a tangible possibility. If we can create a society where modern manifestations of slavery are being turned on their head—where police departments are being defunded and where cannabis is becoming a legal source of income, we can create a world where descendants of U.S. chattel slavery are repaid what they are owed by a system that has robbed them of their just due since they were forcefully brought to this country.
The events of the last few weeks have proven that substantive change is possible quickly and that local governments need not engage in incrementalism when it comes to righting past wrongs. Rather, local governments should heed answers from Black communities and take bold steps toward offering Black Americans compensation for the centuries of harm that the government has perpetrated against them.
Time and time again the United States has been presented with the opportunity to be just, and to atone for slavery and its intergenerational impact on Black Americans. This is yet another opportunity and one we cannot let pass us by. This year marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, and it can be the year where the United States takes a stand towards the full liberation of its Black residents.
Yirssi Bergman, Shweta Moorthy, Ph.D. and Juell Stewart are on the research team at Race Forward, the organization that publishes Colorlines.