State governments around the country began adopting Juneteenth as a holiday shortly after the high-profile police killing of George Floyd, in May 2020. And while Congress is prone to move at a glacial pace, it too acted swiftly to pass a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
America could use a day of observance, to acknowledge the toil of our ancestors and the day some became aware of their freedom from slavery. Although many Black people freed themselves before June 19, 1865, by escaping plantations or joining the Union army to liberate each other, a designated day to commemorate our freedom is certainly worthwhile.
But we have to move beyond a symbolic acknowledgment of our historical pain. Juneteenth should also be a time to fight for the debt owed due to centuries of legally mandated servitude and the decades since, during which government policies have deliberately kept Black Americans from ever catching up. The economic loss for millions of Black families wasn’t just a symbolic one that can be repaid with holidays, plaques or statues. Trillions of dollars of Black wealth have been wiped out while government officials advanced wealth for White households.
Before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation (which only freed enslaved people in some states, while allowing slavery to continue in others), he signed the Homestead Act of 1862, to give away land that helped mostly White people expand and settle westward. While Black families weren’t legally excluded by the Act, only a fraction were able to benefit from it. As historian Keri Leigh Merritt notes, more than 270 million acres of land were given almost exclusively to White households, including to immigrants.
Today, nearly a quarter of U.S. families are descended from the recipients of these land grants. Government policy has continued to widen the racial wealth gap—through housing laws in the New Deal era, discriminatory wage scales or miscarriages of the criminal legal system, which deprive Black households of reliable breadwinners. Duke University economist and scholar William “Sandy” Darity, Ph.D., calculates that reducing the gap now will require granting individual Black households assets of about $250,000 each—which would amount to $10 trillion to $12 trillion paid by the U.S. government.
As scholars have made clear, we can’t educate our way out of this problem, especially when indebtedness seems to be the inescapable cost of higher education. As the 2018 report “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap” states, “On average, a Black household with a college-
educated head has less wealth than a White family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma.” We can’t close it by mere homeownership or entrepreneurship, either. According to the same study, “Among households that own a home, White households have nearly $140,000 more in net worth than Black households.” Add to that the fact that large-scale entrepreneurship tends to expand wealth among those who are already in the upper class.
While such measures may help some Black people, they are unlikely to lift the masses of us into wealth equality. That is why this year, for Juneteenth, we should continue to demand more than symbolic gestures of our emancipation. Without a systemic investment in Black households, we may never truly be free.
This article appears in the May/June 2022 issue of ESSENCE Magazine.