A bill has been passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress making Juneteenth (June 19th) a national holiday. President Biden then signed it into law in record time, leaving government offices scrambling to shut down on a moment’s notice. (Fortunately, most of them have had practice.)
For those of you who don’t understand the holiday: This date marks the anniversary of the June 19, 1865, announcement of General Order No. 3 by Union Army general Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom from slavery in Texas. It doesn’t mark the end of lawful slavery in the U.S., mind; that took another year or two. But it was enough to start a regular celebration in Texas — Jubilee Day, first celebrated in 1866 — which gradually spread to other states.
All of which is perfectly reasonable. Memorial Day began as a day to go out and tend to the graves of Union soldiers who died in the Civil War, and it too was a grassroots holiday. The end of slavery is a fine thing to commemorate.
But the cynical side of me is compelled to ask: Why now?
What is it about the 156th anniversary of Granger’s order that demanded the holiday be observed this year? Why not last year? Failing that, why not make the decision early enough that meetings and appointment schedules weren’t thrown entirely out of whack?
I’ve posed this question privately, to several intelligent people whose opinions I value, and yet I’ve received few answers. One makes some sense: that it ought to have been a holiday long since, and the sooner an error is corrected, the better. Which is fair enough on its own, but it doesn’t really answer the question; I still maintain that they could have launched the bill two months ago if it was going to pass virtually unopposed anyway.
One of the other responses also deserves attention: that, as I’m not noticeably Black, and evidently not descended from slaves, what gives me the right to have an opinion? My kneejerk reply was, How do you know I’m not Black? Judging me by my skin color, are we? How do you know my ancestry, and who gives you the right to judge it?
And yet, that’s not the fallacy exposed by the question. I have a right to have an opinion on any topic whatsoever because I was endowed by my Creator (call it God or evolution; your choice) with the capacity for critical thinking. I have the right to freely express myself, and someone was clever enough to guarantee that in the First Amendment. And you have the right to ignore me if you wish, so if you’re narrow- or closed-minded, or if your religious faith is that of Identitarian, why are you still reading?
(Don’t tell me. It’s a question for you to consider; I already know the answer.)
Of course, there’s a very simple explanation for the curious timing of the Juneteenth Proclamation: It was done this way because that’s what the political parties wanted to happen.
This didn’t come on us suddenly, as it happens; both the House and Senate have repeatedly proposed Juneteenth bills before. Every new Congress for the past dozen (since at least 1996, as far as I can find) has had such a bill introduced by a Texan or Wisconsinite; I found one from ten years ago proposed by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), and that’s just an example picked at random from the pile. In that case, the Democratic majority buried it in committee so President Obama never got the chance to see it, much less sign it.
I mention the parties for a reason. If the Democrats really wanted this, they’d have signed it into law decades ago — but, understandably, they didn’t want to give the Republicans an easy win, particularly among Black voters (to whom the Party believes they hold title). Similarly, if the Republicans really wanted it, they’d have caved at least to the extent of recruiting a Democrat as co-sponsor. It’s always been a bit of cheap political theater, one aimed at pandering to the Black vote.
This year it’s no different, of course; our political theater has always been cheap, and this is still pandering. We’ve reached a stage in our politics, however, where it’s in fashion to cater to this specific minority. Republicans across the country are indignantly fighting off that pernicious “racist” label; Democrats are facing serious pressure to follow through with some real effective changes (and nobody in politics wants that!) Both sides are virtue-signalling like mad, and this is the most obvious signal they can throw out.
(Nobody actually believes banning menthols is pro-Black.)
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’ve been wanting Jubilee Day to be a Federal holiday since I first heard of it back in the ’70s. My first reaction was, It’s about damned time. And it’s important; the sooner we all get into the habit of collectively celebrating that we’re no longer burdened with the evils of slavery, the faster we’ll achieve a society where we stop hating ourselves for it.
But the mere fact that it was the right thing to do doesn’t excuse Congress — in most cases, the same people that have been been burying this in committee for a quarter century, from Pelosi to Schumer to McConnell to Biden — from their cynical and selfish motives.
It’s not a bad first step. But if they really cared, marijuana would no longer be a Class 1 drug. The War On Drugs would end. Our prisons would empty and pardons would be handed out left and right. And real, substantive programs to combat systemic poverty among those of our citizens who are worst off — and who just happen to be Black — would be in place right now.
And that’s Black. If we really truly want to prove we’re not racists, let’s talk about Puerto Rican statehood. It’s only a hundred years overdue.
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