The Bittersweet Promise of Juneteenth

On January 1, 1863, the emancipation proclamation was signed that freed “all persons held as slaves” within the states that had seceded from the union. Two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, word reached Galveston, Texas — freeing 250,000 slaves (although some weren’t told until the end of that year’s harvest). That day is now commemorated as Juneteenth and is celebrated in almost all of the 50 states (finally made a federal holiday on June 15, 2021). However, in the face of persistent subjugation in the form of voter suppression and police brutality — and other racial and social inequalities — the day is often more bitter than sweet.

Juneteenth is somewhat in the midst of a quasi-coming out party, enjoying increased media coverage, social media engagement a la hashtag Juneteenth, and awareness and acknowledgment by non-Black folks. As both the public and private sector clamor to be on the right side of history, the significance of Juneteenth has become even more important because of the slow-in-coming and still-dim realization around the lack of progress Blacks have made since the holiday’s inception.

Existing Systemic Challenges

Though Juneteenth was traditionally developed to remember and celebrate the freedom of enslaved Blacks, it has recently (and necessarily) evolved to serve a greater purpose. A purpose that serves to mobilize the push for much-needed reform — not only in terms of policing or incarceration, but also with regard to social justice issues and political transparency/accountability. This is what is needed to finally obtain what was overdue 150 years ago: the promise of equity and freedom that has been consistently thwarted, obstructed, and denied.

It is unfathomable that we’re still grappling with such gross social, economic, and workforce inequalities. These inequalities are not the ones that have been in place for years but rather have been created and modified every time progress for Blacks and other historically excluded communities was promised.

The current voter suppression efforts that are running rampant through our state legislatures are but one example. Sixty-one bills are currently in place, aiming to restrict voter access. And they are quickly moving through eighteen (18) state legislatures. This is an attempt to slow the tide of widespread political involvement that resulted in the unprecedented voter turnout in 2020 and in key states where the Black vote significantly contributed to a Democratic majority administration — an administration that is influencing critically needed social change and reform.

The Racial Injustice Epidemic

Juneteenth holds within it a promise: that Black lives would no longer be the victim of racial violence. Yet in 2021, over 150 years later, a leading cause of death for young Black men in America is being killed by police. George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Andrew Brown, Jr. are just a few of the heinous murders our country is struggling to deal with amidst the social pandemic of police brutality against Blacks in America. The vision of freedom and equality that Juneteenth brings to Black Americans is cast against this living nightmare, filled with the reality that these dreams aren’t only being deferred but instead are being replaced with a mere fight to stay alive.

Juneteenth’s aspirations also sought to improve the economic conditions of Blacks in America, granting them the ability to earn an income, obtain a degree, hold property, and pass down generational wealth. These aspirations were never translated into economic advancement and financial stability for Blacks. Today, the typical Black family has just one-tenth the wealth of a typical white one.

Lack of access to quality education, discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, and the inability to obtain senior-level roles at the highest earnings level have all contributed to the inequity and slow pace of movement improving the economic and workforce conditions of Blacks.

Realization of Juneteenth’s Promise

This leaves a bitter taste indeed. But now for the sweet. Despite all of these deferments, Juneteenth still brings with it promise, encouraging Black Americans to propel forward in amazing and unexpected ways due to the perseverance and resilience of a people.

We have seen the average college enrollment for Black young adults more than double from 15% to 38% in the last 50 years. We have also seen Black voters flocking to the polls to harness the power of their vote to change the social conditions of our country, and to drive accountability in ending racial injustices and improve economic, education, and health outcomes for Blacks.

We are seeing both public and private sectors using the Juneteenth celebration to educate, inform, and drive tangible actions to improve the social, economic, and workforce conditions of Blacks. Companies are commemorating Juneteenth, not only as a holiday but as a mechanism to make systemic and meaningful changes to the policies, processes, and procedures that drive the hiring, retention, and advancement of Blacks within their organizations with pledges of increasing the representation of Blacks at all levels (i.e., Google, Target, Amazon, Cisco, etc.).

The energy and activism of Juneteenth are critically necessary to ensure that promises delayed are not promises denied. This day of commemoration and celebration must shift from being a singular moment in time in order to transition to being a long-standing effort that does not stop until freedom and equality are truly attained.

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Wema Hoover

Wema Hoover is an executive Diversity, Equity & Inclusion practitioner. She has over 15 years of experience leading global DEI teams across Fortune 500 Company.