From Juneteenth to ReparationsJulianne Malveaux, Ph.D. / June 23, 2023
Just two years ago, in 2021, The Senate unanimously passed legislation to make Juneteenth (June 19) a federal holiday. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the legislation with just fourteen holdouts, mostly among Southern Republicans. It is unlikely that this legislation would get such overwhelming support today, as so many oppose teaching truth, opposing “critical race theory,” and even simple teaching about race and enslavement. Indeed, many might oppose teaching about Juneteenth, which commemorates the day that enslaved Black Texans learned that they were free.
President Biden described signing the Juneteenth holiday legislation as “one of the greatest honors” of his presidency. He said, “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments, they embrace them.” In embracing our painful moments, however, the celebration of Juneteenth is hollow unless it is accompanied by some action. President Biden has had the opportunity to embrace HR 40, legislation that would have authorized a Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans. First introduced by Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) in 1989, and introduced in every congressional session thereafter, the legislation was later championed by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and supported by more than 210 members of Congress. With a Republican-dominated Congress, HR 40 is unlikely to pass during this legislative session, but the President can still sign an executive order establishing a Commission on Reparations. Granted, this might be divisive as we move toward election 2024 with a nation acutely divided on matters of race. Still, Biden must practice what he preaches. In embracing the history of enslavement, and commemorating Juneteenth, our President must ask how we get past the history to compensate the descendants of enslaved people who still experience generational trauma from enslavement.
California’s governor Gavin Newsome established a reparations commission that has now released its report, with recommendations. San Francisco has also issued a report, suggesting both monetary and non-monetary benefits for San Franciscans. Critics have focused on the monetary awards these commissions have suggested, and they would be better advised to focus on the concepts, not the details. No monetary benefit can compensate the descendants of enslaved people for the wealth gap, not to mention the psychological effects, that slave descendants have experienced. Suggestions that individual reparations run into the millions of dollars alarm some, but others understand that reports concluding that large amounts are due represent a starting point in negotiations, not an end point. The most important thing is to acknowledge that reparations are due and then to determine how they should be paid.
“This day doesn’t just celebrate the past,” President Biden said, “It calls for action today.” But what action? The Supreme Court is likely to overturn affirmative action. Even as they offered small hope in the Alabama gerrymandering case, they are likely to rule differently in other voting rights to discuss how they might be paid. The reparations movement is growing, especially the local reparations movement, and people across racial lines are concerned about the wealth gap and its long-term implications. At the same time, resistance to Black progress is growing and so-called law enforcement has gone wild in attacking Black drivers, joggers, walkers and breathers. President Biden deserves credit for signing Juneteenth legislation. What will he do, in these politically divided times, to do more in the spirit of Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is a first step toward recognizing our nation’s sordid history. Even as we embrace our nation’s flaws, we must repair the harm that this history has done. Reparations are the next step toward making Black Americans whole.
Julianne Malveaux is an author, economist and a former president of Bennett College.