Today is Juneteenth, the date commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, word reached Texas that slavery had been abolished. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued two years earlier, the Civil War had been ended for more than two months, and the President had died just over two months before, but word of the Texas slaves’ emancipation reached them on this date in 1865 – formally ending everywhere in the Union the legalized scourge of slavery.
Unfortunately, the struggle for freedom and equality continued – and continues – for those whose families had originally been brought here in chains and bondage, deep in the bowels of those accursed slave ships. An anniversary such as Juneteenth is a perfect opportunity to reflect upon where we are as a nation in that struggle. Some would be happy to say that through the bloody battles of the Civil War and the challenges of the Civil Rights era that all has been resolved and we can now rest on our laurels. Others, who continue to feel the multi-generational effects of slavery, Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction mistakes, racist Jim Crow laws, and Great Society errors seek relief through financial reparations for wrongs done in the past to help the current generation.
In fact, just yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked about reparations. He eschewed the notion, "I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea." He added that we had already fought a civil war, passed “landmark civil rights legislation,” and had even “elected an African American president.” He did also rightly add that there have been many immigrants who have come to this country post-Civil War and who have also faced discrimination.
Those actions, while good and important, are not sufficient. However, I also do think it is fair to say that financial reparations are not the answer - we must repair our wrongs in other, more permanent ways.
This nation, although it has come a very long way from its founding in the way it looks at race issues, still has not come far enough. Whether we want to admit it or not – for let’s face it, it is uncomfortable to deal with – racism is still prevalent in our society. It is seen in the official “system” and it is seen in less overt ways. There is evidence, however, both statistical and anecdotal to back that assertion up.
I believe that the best reparations this country can give for the sin of slavery and the evils of racism is to provide a truly equalized justice system and to provide a society wherein those of all races can flourish according to their own unique gifts and talents.
On the first point: statistics show that we currently have 2.3 million individuals incarcerated. Of that number, 40% of them are Black Americans, even though they make up only 13% of the population. The current laws within the justice system ensure that that disparity will continue. Children and young adults within the Black community are incarcerated at alarming rates. And our three strikes laws that allow permanent incarceration for minor crimes only acerbates the problem. We need to change the laws so that there is hope for a future outside of prison, that children can grow up with both parents, that there is a chance for redemption. Prison should be the last resort, not the first.
There are many areas of legal reform that should be looked into in order to make the system fair: bail, sentencing requirements, drug punishment, and more. It is an urgent problem and needs to be addressed immediately.
Another area that immediately needs addressing is the disparate way Black Americans are treated by law enforcement. Not all law enforcement. But enough that it is noticeable. I remember riding in a car with a friend’s brother, Ron (name changed for the story). We’re both white. Ron was driving probably 30-40 miles over the speed limit when we were pulled over by the police. The officer asked where we were flying to and asked Ron for his license, and so Ron pulled out his pilot’s license. The officer was not amused, and wasted no time telling us so. But Ron got a stern talking to, a ticket, and we were sent on our way. I have spoken to many African Americans who have told me that they don’t dare ever talk back to an officer. Nearly every one of them has a horror story to tell of even when they felt they were being polite, being forced out of their car, being harangued, being yelled at, not believed, etc. I have never once experienced that. Not once.
Of course we are aware of all the reports of police brutality and shootings of Black Americans. No, not all Black men are brutalized by police officers. Not all police officers are racist thugs. Far from it. But the incidences are significant enough that they deserve our serious attention, not just mocking them and pretending it isn’t a real problem, as Phillipe Lemoine did in this National Review article:
Let’s start with the question of fatal violence. Last year, according to the Washington Post’s tally, just 16 unarmed black men, out of a population of more than 20 million, were killed by the police. The year before, the number was 36. These figures are likely close to the number of black men struck by lightning in a given year, considering that happens to about 300 Americans annually and black men are 7 percent of the population. And they include cases where the shooting was justified, even if the person killed was unarmed.
Just to clarify, indiscriminate death by lightning and discriminate death by police are completely different things.
I have no doubt that the recent story out of Phoenix of the out-of-control police officers threatening to kill the young African American parents would have been different had I, a middle-class white woman, been the woman accused of shoplifting. I have no doubt. Even if I talked back.
There was a story in March of a Black student on a work study program for his college picking up trash outside his dorm. He was holding a trash picker-upper stick and one of those bags around your shoulders for putting the trash in. It was clear what he was doing. The police stopped him. Questioned why he was there. Clearly didn’t believe him. Threatened to shoot him, claiming he was wielding a dangerous weapon (the trash stick). The situation was only diffused when a professor, who was white, came by and verified the student’s status. Again, I doubt this would have ever happened in the first place had the student been white. We need to train our police officers to handle these kinds of issues better. Truly we should be equalized.
And it isn’t just the official system that needs to change. As individuals we need to put aside our prejudices and learn to see people as they are, and to treat people for who they are: children of God who deserve to be treated with love and dignity. A couple years ago a friend of my daughter’s shared an experience from work that week. She worked in retail and she was told to follow a big African American man around the store because the manager was sure he was going to shoplift. After an hour or so, he went to the counter with his family, and made a purchase – no theft involved. She said that she had never before been asked to follow a customer and felt it was completely because of this man’s race. We’ve seen the videos of the people calling the police because Black Americans were at their HOA swimming pool, or having a barbecue at the park, or entering their apartment complex, or showing up at a house as a real estate investor, or any number of other experiences.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether these events are statistically rare or experienced by large numbers of the African American community: as long as the perception of injustice remains then we cannot move forward with true justice. Maybe bending over backwards to show civility and mercy while getting through this time of distrust is necessary. Smiling, reaching out a hand of fellowship, and showing trust.
As a society we need to get to know one another better, to go outside of our comfort zones, and to serve where we can do the most good. The noted civil rights attorney Bryan Stevensen, head of the Equal Justice Initiative, encourages us to do that. To look beyond fear, anger, and distance, and to be “proximite.” To get into the trenches with one another, have proximity with each other’s distresses and issues and lives and learn to love them, for when we have proximity it is harder to fear and easier to care.
This Juneteenth I hope that we will pledge to move the civil rights ball further down the road. Let’s personally pledge to reach beyond our own narrow bounds of community and into the realms of other communities to find greater understanding and greater friendship. And let’s work to modernize our criminal justice system to help it work for all Americans and to be truly equalized.