Weeks after the last cannon sounded and the gun smoke cleared in April 1865, slavery in most of the United States had come to an end—unless you were an enslaved person in Texas. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, 71 days after the surrender at Appomattox and 37 days after the Battle of Palmito Ranch, that 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, to announce that the Civil War was indeed over; and that all enslaved people were now free. In Texas, this was known as “Juneteenth,” and it marks not only the day that freedom arrived for African Americans but the day that racism and White supremacy in America made its first evolution from simple brute force to a more complex web of legislation, terrorism via the Ku Klux Klan, and harmful government policies.
Racism After the Civil War
While slavery in its traditional form had been officially outlawed in the months after the end of the Civil War, legal loopholes allowed it to continue. One of the most highlighted examples was made widely known through Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th. In the documentary, it is revealed that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but with the following caveat: “except as a punishment for crime.” It would not be long, especially for those White people in power in the South, to find ways to criminalize any aspect of Black life. A host of vagrancy laws were passed that made it illegal for Black people to do mundane things like stand around on a street corner, become unemployed, or appear homeless. States like South Carolina and Mississippi led the way. South Carolina passed a law that prevented African Americans from having any job other than farming or be subject to an annual tax.
Mississippi, the first state to pass such laws stated the following:
“All freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time…shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction thereof shall be fined….”
These types of laws, known as the Black Codes, were simply a way to extract labor from African Americans via convict leasing, which allowed private companies to acquire cheap or (mostly Black) labor and treat them as if they are enslaved. The comparisons to slavery is not hyperbole, in a 1907 Cosmopolitan article titled, “Slavery in the South To-Day” some 42 years after Juneteenth and the end of the Civil War, the author of the article, Richard Barry stated, “…chattel slavery has reappeared in our day…”
The Cost of Racism and Reparations
Over the past 156 years, we have chronicled the ways in which White supremacy has evolved from chattel slavery to the Black Codes, to Jim Crow, to redlining to the civil rights era. As a nation, we have rallied around those who fought bravely against these structures such as Ida B. Wells, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panthers. These discussions and moments of reflection around these iconic figures of racial justice are often cherry-picked to provide comfort for those who wish to avoid meaningful conversations around reparations—the largest and most direct mechanism to achieving restorative justice.
In 2019, Kentucky’s U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell scoffed at the idea of reparations, saying, “No one alive was responsible for that” and that the “original sin” of slavery was paid for in part by electing an African American president. The problem is that far too many Americans assume that slavery and oppression ended with the Civil War, and that the slate was wiped clean. McConnell and those like him have a narrow view of history, forcing them to think that reparations for slavery, a 150-plus-year-old crime, is the only thing for which the United States should foot the bill for; and that reaching that far back is divisive.
What is left out of the conversation is the $16 trillion lost because of racist practices that have occurred in the past 20 years alone, which even Citi, one of the world’s leading financial institutions, recognize in its study Closing the Racial Inequality Gaps: The Economic Cost of Black Inequality in the U.S. The victims and the perpetrators are still very much alive, and reparations should be discussed in these cases as well. For example, closing the Black Wage Gap—the difference in income between races—would have added $2.7 trillion to the economy each year. Providing fair lending to Black entrepreneurs may have resulted in $13 trillion in business revenue and 6.1 million new jobs per year, the study reads.
In 2020, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and a sweltering summer of protest against police violence centering the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the response from corporate America was swift. From the National Basketball Association to video game maker Electronic Arts, PepsiCo to Netflix, we were bombarded by a slew of statements in support of racial justice and acknowledging the problem of state violence at the hands of law enforcement officers. Places such as Virginia, Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania have recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees with Washington state joining this group in April. Prior to June 17, when President Joe Biden signed legislation making the day a federal holiday, 47 states observed the day in some way; Hawaii and the Dakotas were the only three states that did not.
Acknowledgments and paid holidays, however, do not fix the problems caused by White supremacy in this country.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” King said in 1963. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”
Juneteenth should be a day of celebration, reflection, and education, but it should also be a reminder that the bill is long overdue.
Teaser photo credit: By Governor Tom Wolf – https://www.flickr.com/photos/governortomwolf/48094048157/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79804127