Rodney Ellis is a former Texas state senator and currently serves as a Harris County, Tex., commissioner and president of the National Association of Black County Officials.
The chains broken on Juneteenth, as the date came to be known, marked the end of legal slavery in Texas. But it also birthed the monstrous legacy of justice delayed for black Americans, as promises of freedom, equality and citizenship remain unrealized 155 years later. Each year, as Juneteenth is celebrated around the country with barbecues, parades and speeches, there are also reflections on how elusive justice for African Americans still is after all these years.
Will this Juneteenth finally be different?
The video of the death of George Floyd — those eight minutes and 46 seconds that a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck as he begged for his life — symbolized the feeling of being black in America. Floyd’s killing, and the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, have sparked a nationwide movement fueled by 400 years of blacks’ pleading to have America’s knee taken off our necks.
This month I marched in solidarity with 60,000 Houstonians as a devastated city came together in an unprecedented show of support for black lives. This scene is being repeated across the country and around the world as people seem to finally get what black people have been living with for 155 years. From corporate board rooms to professional sports locker rooms, people are demanding not just awareness but justice. So as we approach this year’s Juneteenth, I am cautiously hopeful that America is finally ready to have a reckoning on race.
What should that reckoning look like? What would it mean to finally deliver on the promises held forth on the first Juneteenth? Real change will require us to do the long overdue work of reimagining and recreating systems that are not broken but working precisely as they were designed. Real change will require more than rhetoric — it will take meaningful action at all levels of government, and sustained engagement with community activists.
Perhaps the most urgent challenge is America’s purposeful criminalization of poverty, substance use and mental illness, which has produced a crisis of over-policing and a two-tiered system of justice that favors the white and wealthy. My home state of Texas, for instance, has the seventh-highest incarceration rate in the United States, placing it ahead of most independent nations. There are nearly twice as many people in the Harris County Jail, which covers the Houston area, than in jails in New York and Cook (Chicago) counties, and a black person in Harris County is almost five times as likely as a white person to be incarcerated. And like most large counties and cities in the United States, we spend almost half our budget on law enforcement — more than 10 times what we invest in public health and community mental health combined.
We can change this. We can choose to have a society that uses its resources to make communities safer and healthier — by prioritizing affordable housing, good public schools, economic opportunity and quality health care, instead of maximizing the sizes of our police forces and the populations of our jails.
We can advance an agenda that includes not only policing reforms but also holistic change that moves away from discriminatory systems of mass incarceration and toward a broader vision of true community safety. Here in Harris County, for instance, we are working to reallocate our resources and shift first-responder responsibilities away from the police in situations involving substance use, mental health and poverty. We are pushing to end cash bail, improving indigent defense and advancing community-led gun violence reduction programs.
And we can begin to restore black communities’ trust in police, which has been understandably eroded after decades of violence and harassment. This starts with establishing accountability, which means ending qualified immunity, enacting use-of-force protections, and creating independent and transparent oversight of law enforcement.
This past weekend, to commemorate Juneteenth, I visited the Emancipation Trail — a 51-mile route that follows the path made by freed slaves from Galveston to Houston’s Third Ward, where George Floyd spent much of his childhood. Throughout the day, we stopped at historical markers, imagining the horrors our ancestors left behind and the hope propelling them forward. We talked with historians and community leaders about the path from slavery to Jim Crow to the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter and the history we are living through today.
I believe Juneteenth should be an official national holiday so everyone can have this experience — an annual day of reflection and action that reminds us that the fight for equality is never ending. But in the meantime, if our country can summon the courage and commitment, we have an opportunity to make this Juneteenth the beginning of the end of justice delayed — and to finally start making the promise of liberation offered to black people on the first Juneteenth something much closer to reality.
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