Last year, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, creating a new national holiday and inviting all Americans to reflect on its significance: The day commemorates America’s early efforts to right a tragic wrong — and challenges the nation to confront the unfinished business arising from its original sin. In effect, it asks Americans to reconcile their national aspirations with the reality of persistent inequalities.
As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted in the stinging 1852 address commonly known as “What To The Slave is the Fourth of July?,” the revolution of 1776, glorious as it was, had failed to confer the blessings of liberty on all Americans. After praising the signers of the Declaration of Independence — “they were statesmen, patriots and heroes” — and the freedoms they had secured, Douglass added a brutal qualification:
What, to the American slave, is your fourth of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Little more than a decade later, President Abraham Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, formally conferring freedom on 3.5 million enslaved people. The African American story from that day forward was one of halting progress — from the 15th Amendment, to Brown v. Board of Education, to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, to the election of President Barack Obama. It was painful, hard-earned and fitful progress, to be sure, but progress all the same.
It’s not hard to understand why, though, a century and a half later, Douglass’s words still sting. Even as shocking incidents of police violence — like the murder of George Floyd in 2020 — have galvanized a generation of Americans to fight for racial justice, stubborn inequities still permeate national life.
Not only have academic achievement gaps persisted, they’ve been exacerbated by the catastrophic learning loss brought on by the pandemic. Even as the national unemployment rate sits at a near-historic low of 3.6%, Black joblessness lags at 6.5%. The racial wealth gap — a pronounced failure of social policy — has only increased over the past 40 years. Meanwhile, America’s epidemic of gun violence continues to take a grimly disproportionate toll on African Americans, who experience 10 times the number of gun homicides as white Americans do.
Slavery’s formal end was a grand achievement for the nation, and should be celebrated as such. Juneteenth marks the day when America at last began living up to its founding creed. It’s right to cheer that moment, while recognizing that, as far as the nation has come, much unfinished business remains.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Next Juneteenth, Let’s Have More Black Economists: Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe
Progress Toward Racial Equity Is Under Threat: Trevon Logan
The US Needs a Better Reparations Plan: A. Kirsten Mullen
The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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