Many individuals, communities, and institutions are commemorating Juneteenth this week, marking the date of June 19, 1865, that enslaved human beings in East Texas who had not heard the news about the Emancipation Proclamation learned that they had been legally freed by executive order two-and-a-half years earlier. While expressions of remembrance and reflection are laudable—the best way to honor the legacy of Juneteenth is to resolve the unfinished business this day represents.
Juneteenth represents the ending of one of the more reprehensible episodes in modern human history—the forced enslavement of millions of West Africans. For 246 years, millions of individuals were kidnapped, shipped, and enslaved in the United States—the profits from their toils appropriated entirely for the benefit of certain white property owners.
It is a basic moral—and legal—principle that for every wrong, there must be a remedy. The challenges our country faces as it relates to the legacy of Juneteenth aren’t simply the willful ignorance of our sordid history concerning racism and slavery, or our failure to acknowledge the ways in which race continues to privilege whiteness in the allocation of resources and opportunities, or the reticence to have candid conversations about our racial history—though these surely are substantial challenges.
Instead, the foundational problem that will bedevil our efforts to sustainably move past our racial history and embrace a brighter future as a more cohesive nation is the failure of this nation to honor the irreducible precondition for reconciliation—just compensation.
In the 100 years after Juneteenth, culminating with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, our country committed not to the truth-and-reconciliation project other nations pursued in the aftermath of historic atrocities, but instead to ongoing debate about the humanity of Black people and the degree to which government could legitimately discriminate against them because of their skin color.
Like the Emancipation Proclamation, the civil rights laws of the 1960s simply declared racial discrimination illegal in public and certain private settings, but again ignored the question of the grievous economic, social, cultural, and psychological harms that slavery and Jim Crow exacted on Black people, as if that long history could simply be wished away and the country could move forward as if it had never happened.
That willful ignorance remains the unfinished business of Juneteenth.
Specific, compensatory remedial action for the descendants of enslaved persons is essential to address our country’s ongoing challenges with racial injustice and inequity.
In education, this can mean everything from universal access to free high-quality, pre-school programs, historic investments in proven K-12 public education programs, and free college and effective workforce development opportunities.
In housing, this can include down payment-support and access to low-interest mortgages for the descendants of enslaved persons—whose ancestors were also subjected to decades of government-sanctioned redlining, and dramatically expanded access to subsidized, affordable housing.
Ultimately, there cannot be a serious effort at truth and reconciliation without a compensatory program to return to the descendants of enslaved persons the economic output that slavery and Jim Crow stripped from them. In the law, basic notions of due process require the return of ill-gotten gains to victims from wrongdoers, and that principle applies with equal force here.
We acknowledge that our country has been on a journey when it comes to race, and it has made significant progress in that journey. Merely 60 years ago, Jim Crow was the law of the land in much of our nation and state-sanctioned discrimination was a reality in wide-ranging federal programs and in states throughout the country.
Four generations before that, the enslavement of human beings was sanctioned by a country that purported to be a beacon of liberty and democracy throughout the world.
The capacity of our nation to improve and grow and to make our democracy more perfect should provide a sense of hope that all things are possible. At the same time, our racial divisions and disconnects threaten our future together and the civic cohesion that will maximize our country’s ability to win the 21st century and beyond.
To reach that higher ground, we must finally, fully account for and remedy the harms generated by our past and the ongoing presence of white supremacy. This work will be messy, hard, and surely at time controversial. But when has reconciliation among family members ever been otherwise?
Let’s use this day of remembrance to spur each of us and our country, as a whole, to complete the business left unfinished on Juneteenth.
By is President of Education Reform Now.