“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Thus reads “General Orders, No. 3”, which was recited on June 19, 1865 by Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger to the people of Galveston, Texas. The final two sentences of the Order arrest my attention. The first of the two prohibits celebration; the latter affirms discrimination. Thus, even in an announcement that confirmed the abolition of slavery, African Americans tasted the sweet and the sour of becoming “free” men and women. That taste has become familiar to our psychic palates as we have sampled the feasts and famines of the struggle for racial equality.
One year after the Order was publicly read, formerly enslaved Blacks in Texas organized the first “Juneteenth” celebration — which quickly spread to neighboring states. Later, the Great Depression, as well as the Great Migration, resulted in a historic expansion of the African American diaspora. Thus, Juneteenth commemorations have now spread to virtually every area of the U.S. Appropriately, in 1980 Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. (Note: The name is a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth”.)
On Wednesday of this week, exactly 153 years after that first celebration, many African Americans celebrated Juneteenth. (The celebration is also known as “Freedom Day,” “Emancipation Day,” “Juneteenth Independence Day,” and various other names). On that same day, Democrats from the House Judiciary Committee held hearings to discuss whether to “study” — and ultimately, to accept — “proposals” regarding reparations for the descendants of Blacks who endured slavery, Jim Crow and all manner of state-sanctioned discrimination and domestic terrorism. (The results of the hearing were not available as of the date of publication of this column.)
Democratic presidential candidates currently are scrambling to offer nuanced ideas regarding how such reparations might actually be implemented. (That is, they want to try to appease African Americans, whose support is indispensable if they hope to win the White House. At the same time, they want to be careful not to alienate whites — whose votes they also need. It’s quite a needle to thread.) Historically, progress on this delicate matter has moved at a glacial pace; it now appears to be speeding up somewhat.
Much of the reparations discussion is driven by a desire to substantially reduce the seemingly intransigent “racial wealth gap” between Blacks and whites. According to the 2014 “Survey of Income and Program Participation,” Black households have less than seven cents for every dollar as compared to white households. Further, white households that live near the poverty line have about $18,000 of wealth, whereas similarly situated Black households have a net worth of $0. Yes, that’s right. Nada. Zip. Nothing.
To be sure, the “wealth gap” is not solely a racial problem. Just three Americans have as much wealth as fully half the entire U.S. population. You read that correctly. Not three million. Not three hundred thousand. Not even three thousand. Just three. (Notably, none of the three is Black.) However, the fact that class plays a prominent role in this discussion does not, in any way, diminish the fact that race is the overriding factor.
Of course, the ever-prescient social scientist, W.E.B. DuBois, knew what lay ahead when he wrote his famous essay “Black Reconstruction in America,” in 1935:
“The price of the disaster of slavery and civil war was the necessity of quickly assimilating into American democracy a mass of ignorant laborers in whose hands alone for the moment lay the power of preserving the ideals of popular government; of overthrowing a slave economy and establishing upon it an industry primarily for the profit of the workers. It was this price which in the end America refused to pay and today suffers for that refusal.”
Time will tell whether America has genuinely learned the existential importance of righting the wrongs of the past. At this point, I am not optimistic.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.