Making Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day news of emancipation finally reached enslaved people in Galveston, Tex., a national holiday is a victory. But it is a hollow one at a moment when the political party that won the Civil War and made that freedom a permanent reality is now moving heaven and earth to keep African Americans from voting.
All but 14 House Republicans were happy to vote for the long-overdue legislation adding June 19 to the holiday calendar, signed Thursday by President Biden. Doing so allows them to portray themselves as opponents of racial oppression, which they prefer to leave in the past — rather than as contemporary racism’s enthusiastic enablers.
In the Senate, the Juneteenth legislation even had the sponsorship, no less, of the likes of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who infamously raised his fist in solidarity with the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Their aim, which Hawley endorsed, was to overturn the 2020 election by invalidating swing-state votes cast largely by people of color in cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia and Phoenix.
This is not to diminish the accomplishment of the lawmakers, led by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who worked long and tirelessly to create the new holiday. And it is not to understate the difficulty of getting anything at all through Congress at a time when Republicans are determined to deny Biden and the Democrats a single legislative victory.
But let’s be real.
Supporting the Juneteenth holiday is a gesture that lets Republicans pretend to acknowledge the nation’s original sin of slavery even as they insist that racism is confined to our national past. At the same time, however, Republicans across the country — egged on by Fox News and the right-wing media chorus — are trying to pass laws barring schools from teaching the factual history of racism and white supremacy in this country under the guise of attacking “critical race theory,” a set of academic concepts they stripped of its original meaning and context.
As a holiday, Juneteenth has always mixed bitterness with sweetness. Though President Abraham Lincoln first issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, enslaved African Americans in Texas didn’t learn that the Union had won the Civil War and that they were free until 1865.
Many formerly enslaved people across the South became farmers — and, for the next century, they and their descendants were systematically denied bank loans and government assistance. Where were Hawley and the Republicans when Democrats, as part of the $1.9 trillion covid relief package, approved $5 billion in relief for Black farmers? They all voted against it. And where is the Republican outrage at the federal judge in Wisconsin who blocked those funds, claiming that to give the relief money — a pittance, compared to what was stolen from Black farmers over the decades — discriminates against White farmers?
Observing a new holiday is not the reckoning with systemic racism that so many Americans demanded following the murder of George Floyd. More than a year later, Democrats still have not been able to find 10 Republican votes in the Senate for a set of modest reforms in policing, including a ban on chokeholds. I accept that Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the body’s lone Black GOP member, is making a sincere effort to find votes. But I’ll believe they exist only when I see them.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party — a party whose unifying philosophy once was opposition to slavery — is now obsessed with undermining the legitimacy of African American and Hispanic voters.
Republicans who forthrightly reject former president Donald Trump’s lie that the election was stolen from him, such as Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), are ostracized. In dozens of states controlled by the GOP, legislatures are passing bill after bill aimed at purging voter rolls, curbing voter registration, and restricting voting hours and locations, all in ways clearly aimed at disenfranchising voters of color. These voters, not coincidentally, tend to vote for Democrats.
Worse yet, some states are trying to give their Republican-controlled legislatures the power to decide whether to essentially nullify election results because of alleged “irregularities.” Remember Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a conservative Republican who insisted that the state’s votes be counted fairly and resisted calls to somehow overturn Biden’s victory? The GOP is trying to put an end to that kind of integrity.
If Republicans want to convince us they are sincere in their stirring words about the importance of Juneteenth, let’s see them sign on to the voting-rights legislation that passed the House and now is being considered in the Senate. If they don’t like that bill, let’s see them come up with one of their own to protect the right of every American to vote.
Speak up, Sen. Hawley. I can’t hear you.
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