Juneteenth: what it meant in 1865 and what it could mean for us in 2022


One day in late June 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas. They carried historic news: Legal slavery had ended about two and a half years ago with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This is how some of the last remaining slaves in America were freed.

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The day became known as “Juneteenth”, a holiday still celebrated today in black communities across the United States.

Yet more than 150 years after slavery, black wealth still lags centuries behind white wealth. A report by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) found that it would take 228 years for black families to accumulate the amount of wealth that white families already possess today.

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In reality, the racial wealth divide is wider today than decades ago, and continues to expand. This divide will not close without bold structural reform to match the structural injustices that created it – from slavery itself to Jim Crow, to caution and mass incarceration.

A more recent IPS report offered a number of promising solutions, including these ideas, to close the gap.

  1. Baby links. Baby bonds are federally run accounts that can be created at birth for all children and grow over time. When children reach adulthood, they can use these federal funds for education, buying a home or starting a business.
  2. Guaranteed employment and living wage: Bridging racial wealth means creating good jobs that pay living wages to everyone who can work. A federal job guarantee would provide universal employment coverage and eliminate involuntary unemployment. A much higher minimum wage would ensure that all jobs actually support families.
  3. Affordable housing: Secure housing remains out of reach for millions of families, and homes are the middle class’s greatest source of wealth. We need big investments in social housing, rent control and down payment support for first-time buyers from marginalized backgrounds to ameliorate historical injustices and address the current crisis.
  4. Health insurance for all: People of color made up more than half of the 32 million uninsured non-elderly people in 2016, putting them at serious medical and financial risk. Medicare for All would dramatically reduce health care-related bankruptcies, the single largest source for all Americans.
  5. Postal bank : People of color are particularly likely to be unbanked, as are rural people and the elderly. The Postal Service could offer short-term, low-interest loans to these populations to protect them from predatory payday lenders.
  6. Increase in taxes on the ultra-rich: A significant increase in taxes on the extremely wealthy would reduce the corrupting influence of wealth on our politics while generating significant revenue to create opportunities for those who have been prevented from generating wealth.
  7. Correction of the tax code: We spend $600 billion a year on tax subsidies that allow the rich to get richer. Shifting that spending to low-income people would have a monumental impact.
  8. Repairs: A bill called HR 40, currently being championed by U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, would create a commission to study the issue of reparations and grapple with what they might really look like. It is a welcome step.
  9. Better data collection: It is difficult to understand the extent of the racial wealth divide without good information about the full range of racial diversity in the United States. Localized data on household assets and debt by race would provide better insight for policy-making.
  10. An Audit of Racial Wealth: All laws and policies can have unintended consequences. We therefore need a framework to assess the impact of new ideas on the distribution of wealth.

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All of these ideas are bold. But none are as bold as the news that greeted Galveston in 1865: slavery was over. This Juneteenth, let’s continue to think radically about how to tackle this incredibly important challenge.

Jessicah Pierre worked as a media specialist on inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies. She now works in the civil service.

This editorial was distributed by OtherWords.org and originally published on June 19, 2019.


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