Juneteenth is a day of celebration, and should be for all Americans. But, for white Americans, Juneteenth also should be a day of penitence, of commitment to change, and of reaching out in empathy and love to those who have been marginalized and oppressed to enable our privilege.
Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery, and dates back to June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers notified enslaved people in Texas they had been freed — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Now, 155 years hence, the promises of Juneteenth — of true emancipation and equality — remain withheld from black Americans.
When Union troops announced emancipation on June 19, 1865, they declared it included “an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” That was welcome news. And people of color in America still wait for it to come true.
I’ve written at length in this column on the economic disparities between white America and the margins of America left for people of color. Systems of segregation, red-lining and resegregation — de facto and de jure — continue to erect barriers to people of color.
Being born anything but white in this country still means you have greater hurdles to overcome to reach financial security and professional success, you face harsher standards in the justice system, and you are underrepresented in our government.
The roots of these disparities all flow uninterrupted from slavery, and nowhere are those roots stronger today than in America’s justice and penal systems.
When slaves were emancipated, white America was quick to enact and enforce new laws to take advantage of a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, which allowed for prison labor. Arrests and disproportionate sentencing of black men ensued, allowing chain gangs to be leased out to plantations, mines, railroads and other companies — effectively continuing slavery, at great profit for slave master profiteers.
Fast forward to the 1980s and America’s addiction to “get tough on crime” policies. Administrations of both parties pushed for longer sentences and less rehabilitation or treatment, and the result was predictable — between 1980 and 2015, the number of incarcerated Americans increased from about 500,000 to more than 2.2 million.
And those incarcerated were far more likely to be black than any other race. In America, being black means you stand five times the chance of being incarcerated than if you were white.
The disparity starts young. Despite black people only making up about 12% of the population, black children represent 32% of children arrested, 42% of children detained, and 52% of children whose cases are sent to criminal court, according to the NAACP. One out of every three black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys — compared to one of every 17 white boys, according to the ACLU.
It all goes hand-in-hand with economic subjugation, which is meant to withhold from black Americans the “absolute equality of rights and rights of property” promised on Juneteenth 1865. As the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported in 2015, the United States “has a dual criminal justice system that has helped to maintain the economic and social hierarchy in America, based on the subjugation of blacks … public policy, criminal justice actors, society and the media, and criminal behavior have all played roles in creating what sociologist Loic Wacquant calls the hyperincarceration of black men.”
Just as in the post-Civil War South, the large number of black men incarcerated in America has attracted wealthy white businessmen eager to profit from their enslavement. And nowhere are the profit margins better than in private prisons, which increased 47% between 2000 and 2016 — five times faster than the total prison population growth — according to a report by the Sentencing Project.
The Obama administration pushed to phase out private prisons, and movement in that direction was well underway by January 2016. But, the Trump administration smelled profits — the driving force of this administration, second only to naked racism.
In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed course on private prisons, and the stocks for America’s two largest operators of private prisons more-than doubled. As of 2015 — the most recent year for which numbers are available — private prisons were a $3.5 billion industry.
Disproportionate enforcement of laws and sentencing have created an unjust justice system that, when paired with profiteering from prison labor and private prison contracts, amounts to institutionalized slavery.
Mass incarceration, when disproportionately applied to imprison and profit off the lives of black men, is slavery. And if we have any hope of becoming a land of morals — because we’ve never yet been one — we must not only reform, but completely pull apart and rebuild sentencing and corrections in this country.
Juneteenth is a great day of celebration. But, to truly celebrate it, we — white Americans — must recognize the injustice of justice in America, and commit ourselves to undoing systemic racism and the profiteers who feed off it. Only then will we, as a country, realize the promises of Juneteenth.