Mara Schiavocampo is a four-time Emmy Award winning TV journalist and host of the Run Tell This podcast. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)There’s a recurring meme series on social media known as “What You Asked For vs What You Got.” In it, users post side-by-side photos of a beautifully advertised product they ordered (say a gorgeous dress) next to the disappointing garment they actually received (a threadbare slip).
This week, Congress gave us the social justice version of that meme. Over the last year, Americans en masse asked for accountability for police shootings, voting rights protections, and economic equality. We got Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Early this week, the House voted overwhelmingly on the measure, commemorating the day in 1865 when the last slaves learned they were free, some two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed it into law, marking a spectacular act of performative activism.
The symbolic and spiritual significance of a federal Juneteenth holiday can’t be diminished. There are many who have fought for this moment, and we bow to the work of our elders, tireless advocates like 94-year old Opal Lee, the so-called “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” who has dedicated the last four decades of her life to this cause. According to news reports, when the House measure passed, Lee said, “I’m so happy that I could do a Holy dance.” Democratic Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee called the imminent law an “elevation of joy.” They are right to rejoice. I believe our ancestors join them. But as Missouri Rep. Cori Bush noted, Juneteenth is an and, not an instead, posting on Twitter, “It’s Juneteenth AND reparations. It’s Juneteenth AND end police violence + the War on Drugs…It’s Juneteenth AND teach the truth about white supremacy in our country.”
It’s an old game, treating Black people like cats with a laser pointer.
By moving forward with this legislation, Congress is celebrating the liberation of slaves in Texas in 1865. But why is it that they can mobilize such quick bipartisan action on a new federal holiday, but not voting rights legislation to protect Black voters in 2021 (notably those in Texas, facing some of the most restrictive measures)? Why can’t they move with such urgency on anti-lynching legislation to protect Black lives, or the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to protect Black civil rights? The answer is because it’s much easier to play a role than to live it.
We saw it on stark display last summer during massive protests against police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s murder. The country witnessed an historic protest movement for human rights; a multiracial, national outcry from millions of Americans proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. It was unlike anything this nation had ever seen, White Americans seemingly as outraged as their Black neighbors.
We asked for police to stop killing us. The system responded by changing the name of Aunt Jemima brand and logo, removing Uncle Ben from rice boxes, and adding “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to NFL games.
We asked for an economic reckoning, demanding corporations hire and promote more Blacks at the executive level. Companies responded by holding virtual workshops on implicit bias. They posted black squares on their Instagram feeds. They created lists of Black-owned products consumers should support. They released more shades of make-up. What many did not do to any significant degree was hire and promote Black people.
We asked for an honest reckoning about our history. But we already see resistance to this, with conservatives around the country decrying efforts to provide a more accurate education about our country’s past. By today’s rules of engagement, how would we even describe this new national holiday? How do you explain Juneteenth in the absence of critical race theory?
If we are clear about nothing else, let this be crystal: Juneteenth represents not just emancipation, but the theft of two years of freedom from those enslaved in Texas; amnesty for two years of crimes including wage theft, kidnapping, forced labor, child labor, rape, and assault. But conservatives would argue this truth is “divisive.” They seem to think that if White children learn these truths in school, it will traumatize them and make them feel like little racists.
We asked for recognition of our painful past, but mark my words, we’re getting another day for sales on grills and patio furniture. 50% off, y’all!
Juneteenth will become the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. day was created in 1983, an unfortunate foreshadowing. This new holiday is likely to be gentrified in the same way, the legacy of slavery trampled upon just as the honorable words of Dr. King have been misappropriated by those who would have abhorred everything he stood for were alive today. The countdown has begun. Trite Juneteenth statements about the value of American freedom will become the summer version of MLK Twitter quotes, the new “I have a dream,” a safe and inoffensive veneer of inclusivity.
Measures to meaningfully address inequities — from voting rights to police reform –remain stalled in Congress. Our elected leaders need to deliver on their promises to put in place measures that protect the Black lives that are disproportionately attacked on many fronts.
We know what we asked for. And we intend to get it.