Congress has passed legislation designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday with bipartisan support. But more has to be done, said Case Western Reserve University Law professor Ayesha Bell Hardaway.
“Commemorating the day as a holiday is important, but I don't believe that that is the only thing that needs to happen here," Hardaway told Yahoo Finance. “We need to be careful to not rest on our laurels and allow marking holidays to become a substitute for the work that needs to take place.”
Americans should not let “the symbolism of the day become more than what the principle behind emancipation is supposed to be,” she said.
Instead, she added, Americans need to question why in the U.S. Black Americans “are subjected to racial disparities not just in the criminal legal system, but also in housing and education and employment, in health care, in so many areas of everyday life across the board.”
“Black Americans experience a level of discrimination and racial disparity bias that undermines or undercuts what we would imagine what I think the principles of emancipation or freedom are supposed to stand for,” she explained. “Something that marks freedom, is something worth celebrating. Emancipation is something worth celebrating, especially considering all of the horrors, the degradation, the subjugation that we now know is American slavery. That is something that requires jubilation and celebration."
But the reality, Hardaway explained, doesn't match the “symbolism of Juneteenth.”
America, she explained, is the “leader” of prison population rates of any country in the world.
With “60% of Black and brown people comprising those who are housed in prison jails and detention centers,” the freedom that Juneteenth represents “is something that does not exist for many Black Americans in this country,” she said.
Local governments taking leadership role in reform
Several policy initiatives like reparations and policy reform hope to address some of thes inequities. Reparations has gained traction in Congress for the first time since former Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the measure more than 30 years ago. Local governments and municipalities, like Evanston, Ill. and Asheville, N.C., have also taken up the policy by passing reparations bills.
Hardaway calls the movement on both the national and local levels “critically important.”
“Because we know that the federal administrations change from time to time,” she explained, it’s important to see states taking a leadership role on reforms.
“Under the prior administration, there really was no appetite for police reform. And because of that, states like Illinois had to assume a role in ensuring that consent decrees or police reform came to cities like Chicago,” she said. “We need to have the ability on both the state and the federal front to enact remedies, such as whether it's consent decrees or reparations.”
Reparations remain largely unpopular in the United States, with 67% of Americans opposing the policy. Opinions on reparations often break along racial lines: more than 80% of white Americans oppose it, compared to just a quarter of Black Americans.
“The real issue with American slavery is the fact that it was sanctioned by the government, that the land that we live on was worked on by Blacks and that the benefit of that labor has gone to the government and to corporations," Hardaway said. "And in fact, has built white wealth in this country.”
“But the individual responsibility for that is not the answer or the distinction by which we should decide whether or not reparations are due. The real question is whether or not the harm or the debt is owed... I know that there's extensive research that answers that question in the affirmative,” she said.
The next question Hardaway added, should be how the government and entities “make good on the benefit that they unjustly received?”
Kristin Myers is a reporter and anchor for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.