Reflections on Juneteenth
On June 19, 1865, two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, effectively ending the Civil War, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army delivered General Order No. 3, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” thus ending one of the most repugnant periods in the history of the United States. Juneteenth, while celebrated by Black people for generations, was made a national holiday in 2021, following the summer of 2020 when the nation, yet again, was compelled to reflect on the fact that anti-Black racism remains a constant specter that prevents the United States from living up to its ideals of establishing and maintaining a more perfect union.
While Juneteenth is a celebration and acknowledgement of Black self-determination and agency, we must also embrace the sage words of the great Dr. Angela Davis, who reminds us that “freedom is a constant struggle.” I take Dr. Davis’s proclamation as an invitation to acknowledge that while the institution of slavery has been abolished, the legacy of slavery remains, as especially exemplified by the prison-industrial complex that continues to disproportionately and adversely impact Black people. Moreover, the perpetual striving for Black freedom requires variables of honesty and integrity that are clearly missing from the national, state, and local discourse.
The fact that too many of us still find it difficult to have the hard and necessary conversations about how anti-Blackness shows up in our workplaces, our communities, and our very lives is compounded by one of the more recent manifestations of anti-Blackness – concentrated attempts to erase Black history, books, and even poems read during a president’s inauguration. To be clear, the recent attacks we’re witnessing on teaching Black history, as well as the interdiction of critical race theory study, must be seen for what they are – direct and concerted attacks on Black people.
The main goal of these draconian acts of erasure is to beguile white folk into ignoring documented trends that incontrovertibly prove that Black people continue to be marginalized by all institutions – legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political, and environmental. Facts cannot be ignored or disputed – it’s a fact that Black New Yorkers represent the lowest home ownership rate, it’s a fact that New York City is experiencing one of the largest declines in Black population for major U.S. cities, it’s a fact that Stuyvesant, the prestigious public high school, , recently admitted only seven Black students out of 762, and it’s a fact that Jordan Neeley was executed by a white civilian in a subway car for experiencing a mental health episode .
The profound stains of anti-Blackness on the fabric of this nation need not be indelible. And we are indeed seeing signs of a willingness to confront the legacy of slavery and associated racism head on. For instance, the New York State Legislature just passed a bill that will result in the formation of a committee to study reparations in the state. Governor Hochul can make this a Juneteenth to remember by signing this bill into law immediately. Furthermore, the Governor and all New York lawmakers must demonstrate a greater commitment to climate and environmental justice. Black New Yorkers, as confirmed by the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) remain disproportionately impacted by toxic air pollution. The Governor must, therefore, direct DEC to institute regulations that prioritize pollution reduction in Black communities as mandated by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. She can accomplish this, in part, by ensuring that the “Cap and Invest” program currently under development is designed through a lens of environmental justice as NYLPI laid out in a recent piece I wrote for the Albany Times Union.
Author and scholar Robert L. Allen writes, “It is apparent that virtually all of these [social] movements … have either advocated, capitulated before, or otherwise failed to oppose racism at one or more critical junctures in their history.” He continues, “the reformers all too often developed paternalistic attitudes that merely confirmed, rather than challenged, the prevailing racial ideology of white society.” This may be the way things are, but that doesn’t mean they have to remain this way. This Juneteenth, we have a collective responsibility to heed the words of Mr. Allen and do all that we must to deracinate this cycle; that starts with hard conversations that lead to requisite action to dismantle anti-Blackness.
NYLPI commits to holding these hard discussions internally and externally, as well as through our work made possible by your support. Let’s celebrate this Juneteenth by taking in what we’ve accomplished, while also understanding there’s much more work to be done individually and collectively.
Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright
Director of Environmental Justice
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