The U.S. has a new federal holiday in Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas.
The holiday, to be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day, was approved this week by both the U.S. Senate and House, and President Joe Biden signed it into law on Thursday. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.
This is an important step forward in this country for leadership to acknowledge its racist history, and to recognize that the long overdue independence of an enslaved people from their own nation is worth remembering. “It will be such an elevation of joy,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who plans to mark Juneteenth in Galveston on Saturday.
But some have indicated that the creation of a federal holiday still leaves much to be desired: “It also reminds me of what we don’t have today — and that is full access to justice, freedom and equality. All these are often in short supply as it relates to the Black community,” said U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J.
There now should be a next step, which will be harder but no less important: dismantling systemic racism to ensure that Black Americans today are truly free and equal to their white counterparts.
There are many examples we could name here, but let’s look at one of the more recent scenarios: the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the first wave of fatalities, in April 2020, Black people died at rates higher than those of other ethnic or racial groups, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Even now, as more people get vaccinated, a racial gap appears to be emerging again, with Black Americans dying at higher rates than other groups. Adjusting for population age differences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Native Americans and Latino and Black people are two to three times more likely than white people to die of COVID-19.
Why? Overall, the AP notes, Black and Hispanic Americans have less access to medical care and are in poorer health, with higher rates of conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. They are also more likely to have jobs deemed essential and are less able to work from home.
Addressing those disparities and inequalities could go a long way toward establishing true freedom. Otherwise, what’s really the point of Juneteenth? Why commemorate freedom if Americans of minority populations, and particularly Black people, are still being harmed and affected by policy disproportionately?
Juneteenth is a necessary addition to the federal holiday lineup. But it won’t mean much if the U.S. doesn’t also implement meaningful change that betters the lives of Black Americans.