• Surabhi Paraki

What is Juneteenth, the Latest Federal Holiday Announced by the Biden Government?

After a year of widespread protests against racial discrimination in the country, on June 17th, 2021, the USA's president, Joe Biden, signed a bill to declare Juneteenth a federal holiday. This move received both appreciation and criticism. So let's take a look at the longstanding history of this important day.


An illustration of life before and after emancipation by Thomas Nast.
An illustration of life before and after emancipation by Thomas Nast. (Keith Lance / Getty)

What is Juneteenth?


Juneteenth, a word formed by combining the date - "June" and "nineteenth," marks the end of slavery in the USA.


Originating from Galveston, Texas, the 156-year-old holiday is now celebrated worldwide and commemorates African-American culture and history.


A brief history of Juneteenth


The Civil War, also known as the Second Amendment Revolution, began in 1861 between the Northern and Southern states and was fought primarily over slavery and economic power.


During the war, the Confiscation Act of 1862 was passed, allowing Union troops (Northern troops) to seize all Confederate (Southern) property, including enslaved people.

A few months later, Abraham Lincoln, the then-president, passed the Emancipation Proclamation that declared that "all persons held as slaves … are, and henceforth, shall be free." This was ratified only two years later, during April of 1865.


However, the people of Galveston, Texas, learned of their emancipation only three months later, on June 19th, until Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army rode up to the city to issue the order.


The enslaved people celebrated with food, drink, and prayer and continued the celebration every year. Eventually, other states picked up on the festivities, and it soon became a national, and then, a global event.


Juneteenth as a federal holiday


Scenes after President Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, 2021.
Scenes after President Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. (Evan Vucci / AP)

President Joe Biden signed a bill on June 17th, 2021, making Juneteenth a federal holiday which caused several implications.


While this alone does not solve racial discrimination, it is the first step towards the country's government recognizing that it is a pervasive issue.


It's a sign that progress is being made and shows the stark contrast between the views of the previous government, which shied away from acknowledging racial discrimination, to the current one, which is taking steps to recognize it.


Criticism


Though the bill is a sign of progress to come, it doesn't deliver actionable results. This is something that the government owed to Black Americans.


There is a lot of White Supremacy and systemic racism yet to be dismantled. However, the consensus among the Black community is that they want real change.

Reforms in the law enforcement system, combating police brutality, protection from hate crimes, increased accountability from lawmakers towards meeting the needs of people of color, and more substantial changes in public policy, law, media representation, and more.


People also worry that the holiday might lead to celebrations that involve cultural appropriation by non-black people and desensitize racial discrimination by making it another holiday.


Several have also pointed out that most of the minimum wage essential workers, who are predominantly people of color, will receive no benefits from the holiday to recognize racial injustice.


A critical issue that is brought up is that of Critical Race Theory. A subject that educates school students on the importance of Juneteenth and helps them discern the way race and politics go hand in hand, especially in a racially diverse country such as the USA.



A graphic representing a statistical report of attitudes towards critical race theory (CRT) and structural racism.
A statistical report of attitudes towards critical race theory (CRT) and structural racism. (The Economist)

This subject has been banned from schools in 4 states, with 12 others states planning to follow suit. Activists say that it is ironic that students get a holiday on Juneteenth and aren't allowed to learn why.


Conclusion


The Biden administration made a much-needed move to acknowledge racial discrimination and systemic racism prevalent throughout the country, and while it was long due, it isn't enough.

We must address issues right from the grassroots level, and we should take steps to dismantle the societal systems that leave people of color at a disadvantage.


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Sources:


https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/16/us/politics/juneteenth-holiday.html


https://www.newsweek.com/juneteenth-national-holiday-leaves-black-people-unimpressed-1601096


https://www.vox.com/2020/6/18/21294825/history-of-juneteenth


https://www.wbtv.com/2021/06/17/juneteenth-becomes-federal-holiday-critics-say-this-law-not-enough/


https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/historical-legacy-juneteenth


https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/

https://www.history.com/news/what-is-juneteenth



Surabhi Paraki is a Journalism and Communications student at Jain University. She is also an activist and a content writer at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability.


Inputs and Edits by Sovena Ngeth.