This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
The lesson of the 2020 U.S. election cycle was clear: Do not underestimate the influence of Black voters. At a time when the electoral process was characterized by voter suppression, Black voters in crucial swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin gave this country renewed hope by securing the presidency for President Joe Biden. Thanks to the Black voters who pushed Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff over the electoral edge in Georgia’s runoff elections on January 5, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. With Democrats in control of the executive and legislative branches, the promise of much-needed progressive change with respect to racial justice seemed to be on the brink of becoming reality.
Instead, in the more than nine months since Democrats have helmed the federal government, all that has occurred in the name of racial justice is the recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday that marks the day slavery ended in the United States (June 19, 1865—two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued).
I do not mean to diminish the historical significance of “Juneteenth National Independence Day” as it is officially known or to disrespect the work of Black activists who have advocated for commemorating this important historical milestone for years. And as Republicans in state legislatures battle to keep discussions of racial inequality out of public schools, I applaud efforts to recognize Black history and culture. I also understand that Democrats are in a complicated position. Republicans have long shown hostility to racial justice issues, preferring instead to court white supremacists. The pressure to legislate for the benefit of Black voters has unfairly fallen exclusively on the shoulders of the Democratic Party, but that is the burden the party agreed to bear when it competed for support from the Black community.
Black voters supported national Democratic candidates in reliance on their promises. These candidates committed themselves to enacting consequential racial justice legislation. Where is it?
The tragic murder of George Floyd in 2020 inspired the largest mass protest in American history and brought police reform to the forefront of the national consciousness. Democrats had the opportunity to follow up the historic conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of Floyd with the introduction of aggressive police reform, but, instead, the Democratic Party squandered the moment by wasting time negotiating with Republicans who are more interested in creating a cultural boogeyman out of critical race theory than actually legislating. Although the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, any hope of police reform currently lies dormant in the Senate.
Republican-led state legislatures have passed a number of bills designed to limit the franchise in 2021 alone, an inevitability after the Supreme Court announced its decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. The decision essentially castrated the Voting Rights Act, determining that the pre-clearance formula used to determine which jurisdictions must have their voting regimes approved by the federal government was unconstitutional.
Texas has become synonymous with voter suppression recently. The state enacted a law on September 7 that, among other changes, eliminates 24-hour voting and drive-through voting, measures that are likely to most heavily burden voters of color. The law also provides poll watchers with new freedoms to monitor voters’ activity, presenting ripe opportunities for racial profiling.
State voter suppression, particularly in states with high populations of people of color, ahead of the 2022 midterms intensifies the urgency of enacting federal voting rights protections. Yet, efforts to legislate have stalled. The House passed the For the People Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 earlier this year, but the Senate appears to be more invested in protecting the filibuster than in protecting the right to vote. Senate Democrats rallied support for alternative voting rights legislation, but progress on that legislation has since been thwarted by Senate Republicans. After months of exhortations from constituents, activists, and state officials, including Texas state Democrats who risked arrest and a pandemic to lobby senators, no progress has been made to push reforms to protect voting rights.
Support for reparations has increased in recent years. The 2020 Democratic presidential front runners suggested that they supported the idea of at least exploring how the country might go about distributing reparations to the descendants of enslaved Black Americans. Reparations programs have assumed various forms. Several Virginia colleges and universities will atone for slavery through economic and educational advancement opportunities. Evanston, Illinois, broke new ground in the implementation of reparations, inaugurating a $10 million fund for housing grants in March. The state of California and Los Angeles County have returned land to the descendants of a Black couple who were dispossessed of their property during the Jim Crow era. Against the backdrop of progress at the state and local level, precious little has occurred at the federal level. More than 30 years after it was first introduced, a bill to simply study reparations finally made its way out of the House Judiciary Committee only to languish in legislative limbo somewhere within the House.
But at least Democrats, and Republicans, in both houses of Congress could unite to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Even this victory is hollow. Black Americans tend to be concentrated in the types of jobs in the food service and retail industries that are not required to observe federal holidays. Ironically, the day of rest, and hopefully reflection, afforded by Juneteenth could be largely enjoyed by the white Americans who work in government offices and professional offices.
Although they expected deliverables, Black Americans have mostly experienced delays. The message to Black Americans is to wait. Wait for Congress to pass the infrastructure bill. Wait for Congress to negotiate to keep the federal government operative. Wait for the legislative chaos to die down. Wait for the Democrats to expand their majorities in Congress after the midterm elections. Wait for another state to introduce more egregiously restrictive voting rights laws. Wait for the racial wealth gap to widen. Wait for another Black American to die at the hands of the police. Wait for another global protest movement to develop that galvanizes public opinion in favor of police accountability.
Black activists have vocally demanded enhanced voter protections for years. Nearly 90 percent of Black Americans who participated in a 2020 Gallup panel voiced support for police reform. Meanwhile, 74 percent of Black Americans polled by AP-NORC in 2019 supported the implementation of a federal reparations program. These initiatives are not pet projects for Black Americans. They are vital public policy imperatives that Democrats were elected to achieve.
As 2021 comes to a close, congressional lawmakers will transition from governing mode to campaigning mode. Though President Biden and congressional Democrats deserve credit for guiding the country through the coronavirus pandemic, rejoining the Paris Agreement, and expanding child tax credits, all of which have racial justice components, their only specific legislative accomplishment on the racial justice front is the Juneteenth federal holiday. As symbolic as that holiday is, it is no substitute for safeguarding constitutional rights, protecting Black lives, and potentially minimizing the racial wealth gap. When congressional Democratic candidates appeal to Black voters for support during the 2022 election, they may find that the holiday similarly fails to motivate Black voters to head to the polls.