Juneteenth Reflections

Every June 19th, African American communities across the country celebrate Juneteenth. Sadly, this date — like many other moments in Black history which, incidentally, is American history and should be taught and studied — aren’t known to the broader public. So, here’s a bit of a primer: The Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery, went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. Texas, unfortunately, didn’t get the message. Black people there weren’t free until two and a half years later when, on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers told African Americans in Galveston that they were no longer slaves.

155 years later this country is in the midst of a different kind of civil war, one where the convergence of a global pandemic and the ugliness of systemic racism has made clear to many what Black people in America have been screaming all along: this is not the land of the free for us.

Slavery, as it was originally created and defined by White America, has ended. But the core of this country, from our economy to our legal system, is directly intertwined with and has grown from the continued oppression of Black people. From community divestment, redlining, predatory lending, police murders of Black men, women, and children, and vigilante injustice, to the frivolous 911 calls from overzealous and complicit White Americans, the impact of this country’s original sin continues to be felt throughout Black communities.

Millions of Americans from across the country have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest police brutality, calling for the defunding of police departments, and demanding full equality for all people. Underscoring these protests is a frustration with the government’s failure and mishandling of a global pandemic. There is widespread unemployment and our economy is now officially in a recession. People have lost their livelihoods. People have lost loved ones. People are pissed off and for good reason. They want change and they want it now.

Here’s the thing: I fear that America won’t change. That it can’t change. Criminalizing, dehumanizing, and oppressing Black folks serves America. Where’s the incentive to change?

To change would require White America to have a moment of truth and reconciliation, atone for its sins, and share its wealth by giving what is owed to the Black community through reparations and more. Here’s a harsh truth many struggle with: for radical change to occur, White people have to give up some of their power. Now, Black people don’t expect White people to give up everything, but we do expect you to share the wealth. That means diverting property taxes from wealthier communities so that schools in poorer areas get equal funding. It means corporations and the one-percenters paying their fair share of taxes, with private and public sector investments in marginalized communities. It also means White CEOs and board chairs yielding those seats of power to Black people, and more, so much more. And to be clear, we aren’t looking to white people to be our saviors. We continue to fight for justice. We will continue to make bold, unapologetic demands and will hold politicians or leaders accountable to those demands. But we know nothing will change until White America faces it’s legacy of white supremacy and dismantles it.

I’m not sure the country is ready for that. Far too many so-called progressives talk a good game, but the minute they’re faced with giving up their grasp on power or upsetting their largely White constituency, they revert back to their moderate ways. Black people can no longer accept middle of the road policies that paper over the issues. We have screamed, begged, and died all in the name of equality — we are tired of taking baby steps forward.

If America continues on as it typically does by pandering, offering weak statements of solidarity and passing watered-down policy, then we will have wasted this unprecedented moment in history. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others will have been in vain. The pain, fear, and anguish of Black America will have once again been ignored. And America’s profession of freedom and equality for all will continue to be an idealistic notion.

Karundi Williams is the Executive Director of re:power, a national training and capacity building organization focused on racial justice. re:power trains primarily Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) leaders and organizers who are reclaiming their power for radical change.

We believe in a future of inclusive politics where decisions about our communities are made by our communities at all levels.