Congress needs to do more for Black Americans than make Juneteenth a holiday

Congress needs to do more for Black Americans than make Juneteenth a holiday
© Bonnie Cash

More than 150 years after Black Americans began celebrating Juneteenth to commemorate their freedom from slavery, Congress overwhelming passed legislation this week declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday. On June 19, 1865 — almost two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, one of the last remaining outposts of slavery in the U.S., and declared that he and his troops would enforce the proclamation and ensure freedom for those who remained enslaved. For slaves in Galveston and in many former Confederate states, the proclamation’s guarantee of freedom was not realized until Union troops actively enforced the law. 

For Black Americans today, freedom remains a far cry from racial equity. Centuries of deep-seated racial inequities in our laws, policies and institutions has resulted in persistent and staggering racial disparities in virtually every aspect of society from employment rates and wages, to homeownership, access to voting, education, health care, credit and other financial services, to involvement in the criminal justice system and exposure to environmental hazards. 

Several recent events have spotlighted and worsened these long-standing challenges. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated these entrenched racial disparities. Black Americans suffered more serious illness and experienced greater death than white Americans. In the months after the COVID-19 crisis emerged, at least one in four Black households with children did not have enough to eat — three times the rate of white Americans; almost one in three Black households missed or deferred rent in May 2020 — twice the rate of white Americans; and in the same month, almost one in five Black households missed or deferred mortgage payments — also twice the rate of white Americans. 


At the same time, the horrific murder of George Floyd put into stark relief the systemic violence too often inflicted on Black Americans who are over three times more likely than white Americans to be killed by the very police officers sworn to protect and serve them. Also, the surge of state legislation passed following the 2020 election makes it harder for all Americans, and particularly Black Americans, to vote, building on a long and sordid history of voter suppression tactics targeted at Black Americans.    

While the breadth and scope of systemic racism is daunting, there are numerous tangible steps Congress can take right now to start to bridge the racial opportunity gap in America. President BidenJoe BidenStudent debt: It's the interest stupid US maintains pressure on Russia amid concerns of potential Ukraine invasion To stabilize Central America, the US must craft better incentives for trade MORE’s American Jobs Plan includes historic and comprehensive commitments to advance racial equity. For example, his plan includes provisions to reduce the racial gap in homeownership; redress residential segregation caused by federal transportation infrastructure, especially highway construction; eliminate exclusionary zoning policies; boost affordable housing; spur rehabilitation of public facilities in communities of color; eradicate inequities in school infrastructures; target workforce development opportunities in underserved communities; and support the growth of minority-owned small businesses. Passing Biden’s plan would also build on his executive actions to ensure that we have a climate-focused recovery that puts environmental justice front and center and targets improvements in disadvantaged communities. Similarly, other provisions in Biden’s American Families Plan would help close the racial opportunity gap including provisions to lower health insurance premiums; provide universal preschool; offer two years of free community college; supply tuition subsidies to low- and middle-income students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other minority serving institutions; and promote affordable child care. Together, these budget investments present a significant opportunity to stamp out enduring racial injustices across our society.

On the criminal justice front, passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is vital to strengthening law enforcement accountability and combating racism and injustice in law enforcement. The bill would, among other things, ban chokeholds; prohibit racial profiling; end qualified immunity for police officers; improve transparency regarding police misconduct and use-of-force; and invest in community-based solutions to reimagining justice. Its passage would undoubtedly save Black lives and prove to be a critical step in eroding the racial disparities apparent in our policing system. 

Finally, the For the People Act is transformative voting legislation that contains numerous bold reforms to advance racial justice in our democracy including tackling the longstanding challenges of voter suppression and the outsized influence of wealthy and predominantly white big-money donors.

Today, as we celebrate Juneteenth, we should call on Congress to do more than simply pass legislation celebrating the ending of slavery for Black Americans. We should demand that Congress take tangible actions to pass concrete and meaningful reforms that advance racial equity. Congress can start by passing the critical budget investments contained in the American Jobs and Families Plans, the crucial police reform measures contained in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and the visionary democracy reforms provided in the For the People Act.

Nicole Lee Ndumele is the vice president for Racial Equity and Justice at the Center for American Progress.