The Belated National Embrace of Juneteenth

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S1: Hey, everyone. Quick warning at the top. We have one tiny curse word in this episode. It’s right at the end. It’ll fly right by. Well, good afternoon and thank you all for joining us today, I hope everybody had a little earlier this week, the governor of Virginia stepped behind a podium to make an announcement. No. He was surrounded by black political colleagues. Even the musician for Ella was there. He’s from Virginia Beach. That all gathered together to talk about a new holiday. Northan was adding to the state’s calendar that his Juneteenth you see every year as a nation.

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S2: We mark the Fourth of July Independence Day celebrating our independence from English colonial rule. We celebrate this as a holiday, but that freedom we celebrate did not include everyone.

S1: The people. Independence Day didn’t include our black people, of course, who remained enslaved four years after the United States freed itself from Great Britain. Juneteenth, that’s short for June 19th, has long been observed as a day of black liberation. But until this year, most workers had to do that on their own time.

S2: The commemoration will start this Friday with a paid day off for executive branch state employees.

S3: It isn’t just Virginia revisiting Juneteenth this year with protests about racial justice filling the streets. The story of Juneteenth has become newly urgent. Companies like Target, Nike Post mates, they’ve all said they’re going to give workers Friday off. Full disclosure. Slate’s done that, too. But considering Virginia only stopped observing holiday commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson this year, considering the governor of this state is known for a blackface controversy.

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S1: I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened here.

S4: It’s also interesting because Virginia is, of course, the capital, you know, the seat of the Confederacy and was for a very long time a state that was considered very conservative.

S1: Adam, sir, writes about politics over the Atlantic.

S4: It feels really fast, right? Because it feels sudden. But I would say it’s more sudden than it is fast. What’s the difference? Well, what we’re actually seeing is sort of we’re seeing the wave crashing, but the wave was heading here for a long time. What we’re seeing is the result of a number of significant political and cultural shifts in the state of Virginia, but also in the United States. I mean, look, we’re a different country than we were when Ralph Northam put that blackface photo in his yearbook today on the show.

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S5: What the rise of Juneteenth means and what it doesn’t.

S6: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: I asked Adam, sir, to start out by explaining how Juneteenth, which is a holiday that commemorates a moment when slaves in Texas got word of their freedom, became so prominent nationally. So he told me the story from the beginning.

S4: Obviously, the Emancipation Proclamation frees the slaves and the Confederacy. But what that does is for a lot of Confederate slave owners, they freak out at by the American Emancipation Proclamation because a lot of slaves are running towards union lines. They want to defect. They want to join the union army. They want to help out whatever they can or they just want to be free. And as a result, a lot of slave owners actually start moving everything to Texas. They pack up and they had to Texas. So as a result, Texas is one of the last states to actually have slavery really abolished. And that comes with a general order number three, which is issued by May Union General Gordon Granger on June 19th, 1865.

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S1: And we should say that the Emancipation Proclamation was 1863.

S4: Right. So this is years after. Technically, all the slaves in the Confederacy were supposed to be free. I think part of the celebration comes from the fact that a lot of the enslaved folks in Texas, the emancipated, were moved there to avoid emancipation. So there is a delayed celebration, but also a sort of sense that this is finally this is finally happening for them. That’s probably explains why this celebration became so prominent both in the state and why black Americans and other states have sort of latched on to it as the predominant celebration of emancipation, even though it comes years after the Emancipation Proclamation was actually issued.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, when I started reading up about the history of Juneteenth, I heard it described as a particularly apt holiday to commemorate black liberation because it represents the way freedom and justice in the United States has always been delayed for black people. And I thought that was just such an interesting way to put it where it was. It was an acknowledgement that we did declare that this was illegal, but we we didn’t actually make it happen for years.

S4: Yeah. Anyway, it’s a metaphor because the declaration of progress happens long before actual progress is achieved.

S1: Awareness of Juneteenth has tended to expand with the growth of major black liberation movements in United States. Reconstruction. The civil rights era.

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S7: And so if you look at it that way, it’s not surprising that there’s been a resurgence of the effort to sort of recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday.

S8: Because, you know, we’re going through one of those moments now where there is a lot of political momentum for efforts to dismantle systemic discrimination, at least for the moment. The history of these things is that these moments only last for so long, and particularly when they start to win efforts to remedy discrimination, start to touch material concerns, you tend to see that tide of public support received, particularly from white Americans.

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S1: Adams says looking back at the last time this country had a collective acknowledgement of racial injustice shows you how the progress we’re seeing right now could be very ephemeral.

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S7: As you know, Martin Luther King starts pivoting towards concerns that are not just about political rights, but about economic concerns. You can see that resistance start to grow. You know, there’s a lot of resistance to the Fair Housing Act into integration of neighborhoods as well as there. I mean, there was also a great deal of resistance to integration at schools and when and when civil rights movements go shift from sort of political rights to to more material concerns about wealth and disparities and stuff like that. You can see a lot of resistance from people who might who were previously sympathetic. And I think that’s probably going to happen here if history is any guide. You know, it’s one thing to say the police shouldn’t kill people. They shouldn’t discriminate. That’s actually a very. For people who are very conservative on issues of race. That seems like a very reasonable demand. But when you start talking about redistribution of wealth, people tend to start becoming a lot more skeptical because they don’t. They feel like they’re they’re going to have things that belong to them, take it from them.

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S5: This year, with so many more people committing to celebrating Juneteenth, I’m struck by how different people have said different things about what the holidays for.

S1: Like some have said, it’s for volunteering and learning about racism and other people have said more like being with family. I wonder how you think the holiday should be observed.

S7: I don’t. So I feel like there is a sort of impulse to want to be solemn about it. But that’s not the way that I’ve experienced it for most of my life. And I think it’s important that people remember why it exists, certainly. But I’m not against people celebrating it the way we celebrate something like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, where the historical significance of the holiday is understood by the people who are celebrating it. But people are also having a very good time.

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S1: I mean, I wonder if if you worry at all about whether widespread acceptance of Juneteenth might dilute its meaning at all. It sounds like you’re not worried about that. But I am curious.

S7: I’m not worried about it as long as people remember what it’s for. I don’t have a concern. I mean, even something like Memorial Day was initially a black American celebration at the end of the Civil War. As long as people have a sense of historical memory for what Juneteenth is, why it’s being celebrated. Why emancipation came to Texas so late. And what that means for racial progress in the country. I don’t really have a problem with.

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S1: Something I didn’t realize until I looked into it was that most states already acknowledge Juneteenth. It’s just that this year you have Virginia declaring their intent to make it a holiday. But then also all of these companies coming out, just one after the other, saying that they will acknowledge this day from like J.C. Penney to Twitter to Spotify to my company, Slate.

S4: It’s you know, there’s a lot of upside to recognizing Juneteenth for four companies and not a lot of downside. The upside is that you get to say, look, we’re recognizing, you know, this celebration of emancipation as an important thing. If you’re a corporation, you get to sell people Juneteenth swag of some kind. You get to sell beer for Juneteenth. You get to sell hot dogs for Juneteenth. You get so Juneteenth T-shirts, whatever. But you also don’t give up very much. Right. Like, it’s not a it’s not like you’re sacrificing a lot by recognizing this thing as a holiday. And you may get a lot of gain out of it in the sense that people will see you as someone who is a politically and culturally welcoming in a way that may get you more customers. So on the one hand, it’s sort of like a nice symbolic progress. But on the other hand, you know, it doesn’t require a lot of sacrifice and there’s a lot of gains to be had from doing it.

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S1: We’re still in a capitalist society.

S4: I don’t think corporations from supermarkets to clothing stores to anything else are going to be that upset if there’s another July Fourth in June. You know, I’m saying.

S1: Right. One more reason to barbecue. One more reason to come by fireworks. Right. Exactly. You mentioned this kind of a low cost way for a company to kind of acknowledge the moment. And you sort of see that in some of the movement around Juneteenth. You know, a couple of places that have decided to celebrate the holiday. They’ve had little scandals of their own, whether you’re talking with the NFL or The New York Times. And I wonder if you worry that for some of these companies, declaring a holiday is where the work begins and ends.

S4: Well, I think it would be very hard to find a corporation in the United States that hasn’t had to deal with some kind of racial controversy at one point or another.

S7: It’s almost I think the important thing is that it doesn’t it is to remember that observing Juneteenth is not a way to, as President Barack Obama wants to put it, purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. It’s not a way to inoculate inoculate yourself against charges of racism or sit or abandon, you know, whatever commitment you might have to treating your employees equally and with respect. And people shouldn’t see it that way. But to the extent that, you know, the holiday increases recognition of the significance of slavery and emancipation in American history. And I think that it’s probably a good thing.

S1: You know, a few weeks back, Alexis Ohanian, one of the founders of Reddit, he’s also the husband of Serena Williams. He decided to step down from the board of his company and encourage the board to select a black person to replace him. I was thinking about that in the context of all this was like, wow, that’s a really that’s a pretty powerful action. And I wonder if you think if a company really wants to respond to the moment, is there something they should be doing?

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S7: So what I would say is, you know, if you’re recognizing Juneteenth but you’re not in involving black people in your company, either by hiring them or by putting them in leadership positions or paying them a fair salary, then your commitment to racial justice is obviously bullshit. And you’re employed to the extent that you have black employees at your company who, you know, see themselves being mistreated or and not being considered for leadership positions or being paid less than everybody else. Those those employees are probably are going to recognize that for what it is and not it’s like a genuine commitment to any sort of racial justice or equality.

S1: It sounds like you’re saying this is shorthand, but it remains to be seen if this shorthand is meaningful.

S4: I think that it’s it’s meaningful in a symbolic way. But there are a lot. I mean, it’s very easy to overstate. It’s both easy to understate the importance of symbolism into overstate it in the sense that there this does not remove any of the ongoing institutional barriers to racial equality in the United States. But it is a nice sort of cultural thing to acknowledge the extent of the black contribution to American history and how much of that contribution has come with tremendous suffering.

S1: Adam Silver, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for having me.

S9: Adam, sir, is a staff writer for The Atlantic. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Daniel Hewett. Every day we get a little hand from Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedict. Slate is celebrating Juneteenth on Friday. So what next? We’ll be back in your feed on Tuesday. I’m Mary Harris. Thanks for listening.