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This Juneteenth, Black Americans need true reform — not symbolism

A woman decorates her car with a sign during a car parade to mark Juneteenth on Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif.
AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
A woman decorates her car with a sign during a car parade to mark Juneteenth on Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif.

Juneteenth is the new federal holiday commemorating the notification of the last group of slaves in Texas that slavery had ended. Those newly freed slaves left the grip of raw servitude penniless. Forced to navigate an America built on racism, Black Americans continue to this day to struggle to obtain economic equity with their White peers.

While we’ve made progress, Millennials are especially less likely to feel it. Fifty years since the Civil Rights Movement and 10 years since the murder of Trayvon Martin, the real promise of equity has yet to be fulfilled and young Blacks are growing frustrated with the rate of change. Will Millennials ever get their generation’s legislative contributions to the advancement of Black America?

Today, rising costs and inflation are a concern for all Americans, but for Black America, the emotional wear and tear of historical inequities is a deeply personal and persistent economic pain point in their day-to-day lives. For them, getting ahead is almost impossible, and maintaining the status quo is a juggling act of high risks and low rewards.

The National Urban League’s Pulse of Black America survey found that almost 3 in 5 Blacks say wealth inequality between Black and White Americans is a cycle that creates never-ending economic disparity, no matter how hard individual people work. Almost half of Black households — even amongst those with college degrees — are worried about not being able to put food on the table, having to dip into their savings to pay bills, and or having to take on debt they can’t afford to pay back.

Even when following the same blueprint of academic and professional achievement outlined by White America, Black Americans — especially Millennials — feel they are still denied the keys to unlocking longer-term middle-class success. 

And in the same way that white wealth and privilege is passed down from generation to generation, Blacks inherit the struggles and strife of an entire race, carrying the pressure of achieving the dreams unfulfilled and opportunities denied the previous generation. This intergenerational trauma is ingrained into the Black American experience.

While older generations of Black Americans encountered blatant, often violent and unmistakable racism, for Millennials the biases of today manifest in more subtle forms of systemic economic suppression. Despite gains in education, income, occupation and housing, Blacks remain at a disadvantage and are continuously denied the same opportunity as whites to move up the economic and professional ladder.

Whereas the Silent Generation had to survive the full effects of Jim Crow laws, they benefited from President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs — which established a comprehensive legislative plan to uplift urban communities out of poverty and stimulate Black economic growth.

Baby Boomers, the children of the civil rights movement, bore witness to the struggle and strife for people of color in our nation but experienced real legislative change in their lifetimes. Their fight to abolish institutional racial segregation, discrimination and disenfranchisement represents yet another significant transformation in our country’s values and identity, as every American in the 1960s grappled with the Black struggle for social justice under the law.

Compared to older Black Americans, Black people under the age of 35 are:

  • 45 percent more likely to worry about losing their job or having their hours reduced at work
  • About 40 percent more likely to feel that racism routinely affects their mental state
  • About 40 percent less likely to feel like voting matters
  • About 40 percent less likely to strongly agree that they feel proud to be American

Black families are making sacrifices and investments today, with hopes they can provide their children the opportunity to have just a little more than they did, but it seems that no amount of hard work or financial planning can bring the tantalizing fruits of the American dream within reach.

As we celebrate this Juneteenth holiday, let’s remember symbolism is not a substitute for the timeless efforts that need to be made to reform our policing system, our criminal justice system, our healthcare system, and the economic and educational inequities in America.

Black America wants to live in safer communities that offer more opportunities. Among all people of color, the number one factor keeping them from achieving true equality in America is the lack of development in low-income communities, followed by the lack of opportunities to own assets and build wealth, lack of access to affordable jobs, and mass incarceration.

Resilient and self-reliant, Black Americans take no pride in handouts but do acknowledge that they need a hand-up to correct decades of systemic racism and wealth inequities. But no amount of wealth, education, or upward mobility can inoculate Black Americans from the cultural, fiscal, and psychological trauma they continue to endure because of subtle and overt racial biases and inequities.

Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League. Shannon-Janean Currie is vice president of Benenson Strategy Group. 

Tags African-American Civil Rights Movement Causes of income inequality in the United States Income inequality in the United States Juneteenth National Urban League Politics of the United States Racial disparities Racial disparities in the U.S. prison system

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