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The Real Story of the Politics of Juneteenth

Politicians took the easy way out for a day that’s about America doing the hard things.

June 16, 2022
Person holding Juneteenth sign
Michael A. McCoy/Getty

This piece was origin­ally published in The Bulwark

“Make Juneteenth a National Holi­day.”

Donald Trump buried that five-word campaign prom­ise in his 2020 “Plat­inum Plan,” a two-page laun­dry list of economic and social entice­ments to win over black voters in his bid for a second term. Trump lost, so we will never know if he would’ve honored this commit­ment, which was made just six weeks before the elec­tion. But we do know that he made no attempt to create the holi­day during his four years as pres­id­ent. And, despite his admin­is­tra­tion putting out histor­ical state­ments commem­or­at­ing Juneteenth every year of his pres­id­ency, Trump admit­ted that he had only learned of the holi­day’s mean­ing after being informed about it by a black Secret Service agent just a few weeks before it appeared in his reelec­tion mater­i­als.

Should Trump decide to run again in 2024, this campaign prom­ise will no longer be on the table—­Pres­id­ent Joe Biden signed legis­la­tion last year estab­lish­ing Juneteenth National Inde­pend­ence Day as a federal holi­day, after the meas­ure received the Senate’s unan­im­ous consent and passed the House on a 415–14 vote.

But the polit­ics of how Juneteenth became a holi­day is a lesson in the unser­i­ous ways we grapple with race in Amer­ica. The unflat­ter­ing fact is that Juneteenth is feder­ally observed today primar­ily because there was no polit­ical penalty to be paid by congres­sional members who voted in its favor and insuf­fi­cient polit­ical incent­ive for those who would block it to follow through.

As a result, the bill’s passage is a less inspir­ing occur­rence of bipar­tisan consensus on a race-cent­ric issue than it might other­wise have been.

It’s a shame to drag such cynicism into the discus­sion when the moral case for Juneteenth is clear, compel­ling, and easily defens­ible.

On June 19, 1865, a Union general read General Order No. 3 aloud, inform­ing the people of Galve­ston, Texas that, as decreed by Pres­id­ent Abra­ham Lincoln, “all slaves are free.” Though the Eman­cip­a­tion Proclam­a­tion was signed more than two years earlier, June 19th—thus the port­manteau Juneteenth—is usually considered the day that the last enslaved black people in the Confed­er­acy finally learned of their free­dom. Black Texans have celeb­rated the date since 1866, and the tradi­tion slowly migrated to other portions of the South. By the end of the twen­ti­eth century, it had even­tu­ally stretched into communit­ies through­out the coun­try. Since then, activ­ists and legis­lat­ors have worked for decades to obtain national recog­ni­tion for it.

For a nation that gener­ally accepts the perpetu­ation of chat­tel slavery as its greatest short­fall—a sin so egre­gious that it frac­tured the nation and spurred the blood­let­ting of its dead­li­est war—­mark­ing the demise of slavery makes perfect sense. It signals the terrible­ness of the thing, the lengths to which the nation went to fight for its erad­ic­a­tion, and the progress Amer­ica has made from what it once was to what it aspires to be.

Juneteenth is a civic reminder to pause and appre­ci­ate how far the nation has come. If Inde­pend­ence Day on July 4th is a day to honor all the nation got right, Juneteenth is a call to always right the things it gets wrong.

If only our polit­ics were so pure.

Instead, it is far more likely that both parties surveyed the polit­ical land­scape and determ­ined that Juneteenth was low-hanging elect­oral fruit that could signal to black voters that their voices were being heard—without incur­ring much back­lash from other constitu­en­cies. A constant refrain within black Amer­ica is that politi­cians either do not come around at all, or do so only when an elec­tion is near. Making Juneteenth a federal holi­day was a way of both recog­niz­ing the stra­tegic role that black voters play—espe­cially in the urban metro areas of closely contested states—as well as a symbolic, low-cost move to help each party shape part of the elect­or­ate in its favor.

On the Repub­lican side, support­ing Juneteenth serves to counter accus­a­tions that the party is intol­er­ant and regress­ive on race poli­cy—per­haps dampen­ing black voters’ enthu­si­asm to vote against it—while avoid­ing the ire of the party’s base. For Demo­crats, it would be a symbolic gesture of grat­it­ude to the party’s most reli­able voters and the deliv­ery of a policy ask without an elec­tion loom­ing, some­thing to which they could point when encour­aging black turnout in the next elec­tion.

Given the polling, however, making Juneteenth a federal holi­day was not a prior­ity for the over­whelm­ing major­ity of Amer­ic­ans. Accord­ing to a June 2020 Econom­ist/YouGov poll, only 4 percent of respond­ent­s—and just 1-in-6 black people—cel­eb­rated Juneteenth annu­ally, and 3-in-4 people had never celeb­rated it or were unfa­mil­iar with it. Though 60 percent suppor­ted Juneteenth becom­ing a holi­day, half of Trump voters and 44 percent of Repub­lic­ans opposed it.

Nearly half of all respond­ent­s—and almost a third of black folk­s—­heard of Juneteenth for the first time in 2020, largely a result of then-pres­id­ent Trump announ­cing a contro­ver­sial campaign decision to mark the date by visit­ing Tulsa, Oklahoma. Indeed, after select­ing the site of one of the worst epis­odes of racial viol­ence in the nation’s history for his celeb­rat­ory rally—just weeks after George Floy­d’s murder­—Trump embraced the scan­dal, saying, “I did some­thing good: I made Juneteenth very famous . . . Nobody had ever heard of it.”

And yet, a year later with more than half of Repub­lic­ans oppos­ing it, the GOP congres­sional caucus helped estab­lish Juneteenth as a federal holi­day. And when Repub­lic­ans did oppose it, they did so under the trusty ol’ guise of fiscal respons­ib­il­ity. For example, Alabama repres­ent­at­ive Mo Brooks, one of the 14 House Repub­lic­ans who voted against Juneteenth, noted it would result in $1 billion in lost productiv­ity. Tennessee repres­ent­at­ive Scott DesJar­lais called the move “fisc­ally irre­spons­ible.” Texas repres­ent­at­ive Ronny Jack­son, explained that he did not support a paid day off for federal employ­ees “who have been totally inad­equate at deliv­er­ing for the Amer­ican people.”

This explan­a­tion is similar to one that many Repub­lic­ans gave for not support­ing the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holi­day in the early 1980s—the cost of giving the federal work­force another day of paid vaca­tion was not worth it. And it is also similar to the rationale given by Repub­lic­ans for not making Elec­tion Day a holi­day. (Mitch McCon­nell argued in a Wash­ing­ton Post op-ed that making Elec­tion Day a federal holi­day amounts to an “extra taxpayer-funded vaca­tion for federal bureau­crats.”)

Of course, the actual reas­ons for Repub­lic­ans oppos­ing MLK Day and Elec­tion Day as national holi­days were not about budgets but about polit­ics. In the case of MLK Day, Repub­lican strategists worried that voters fresh off the Dixiec­rat train would reject their new party making an over­ture to a recently enlarged black elect­or­ate. And in the case of Elec­tion Day, Repub­lic­ans seem to buy the flawed argu­ment that easier voting auto­mat­ic­ally leads to Demo­cratic victor­ies.

And yet, on Juneteenth? The Repub­lican party got onboard, largely because it intu­ited that there would be no polit­ical cost for support­ing it. Why is that?

Hyper­par­tisan polit­ics and voters’ entrenched partis­an­ship have created condi­tions where there’s little risk of losing support­ers to the other side on an issue to which most Amer­ic­ans aren’t paying close atten­tion. And Trump’s panicked, belated embrace of Juneteenth—aided by Texas senator John Cornyn’s intro­duc­tion of the holi­day-creat­ing bill—­provided the cover neces­sary to keep the holi­day from becom­ing a part of the partisan culture war.

Some­times symbolic legis­la­tion, such as the recently passed anti­lynch­ing law, is worth doing because of the signal it sends to the public about accept­able norms and which narrat­ives hold value in the Amer­ican story. And, of course, prag­mat­ism does­n’t require purity or convicted hearts to recog­nize the value in a good legis­lat­ive action. But the polit­ics of Juneteenth’s ascend­ance to a national holi­day is actu­ally a story about a demo­cratic system that is presently incap­able of doing hard things, and choos­ing instead to take the easi­est path avail­able.

And that’s a shame. Because Juneteenth should be the commem­or­a­tion of an Amer­ica that does the hard­est of things.