Now a Federal Holiday, Juneteenth Calls on Us to Build a More Equitable Nation

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform enslaved Black people that the Union had won the war and they were now free. Those in Galveston are considered to be the last to be made aware of their newfound freedom, coming more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863. Now, almost 156 years to the date, as the United States the day as celebrates its first federal Juneteenth holiday, I want us to have a larger conversation about race and equity in America.

While the federal acknowledgment of this historic day is appreciated, it begs the question: Why is more not being done to create equity? Last summer as police brutality against Black men and women was once again at the forefront, we saw an increased effort to turn out the Black vote as a response. Since then we have seen an attack on voting rights across the nation; meanwhile, the House and Senate refuse to pass any federal protections. And why has Congress yet to vote on the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching act? It appears that Congress is interested in doing nothing but providing an optional day off for the atrocities of slavery and beyond.

This inaction is casting a sobering feeling for many Black people over the holiday, despite its enactment. It feels like more lip service and another performative act that is the equivalent of pouring a cup of water on a forest fire. The United States has an ever-widening gap in regards to equity; it is both historic and contemporary, and we cannot solve the issue by avoiding the topic (i.e. banning critical race theory). We must address this problem not only through open conversations, but in our policy demands as well.

Which is why I am proud to work for an organization like Michigan’s Children, that not only allowed us the day off in observation and invited me to write this blog, but whose core principles also revolve around closing equity gaps. We understand that we have to push for policy that benefits the entire family and is inclusive of all the cultures and circumstances in Michigan. For example, by advancing kinship care supports and ARPA Child Care funds, we along with other organizations and grassroots leaders want to ensure that as many families or trusted loved ones who are caring for children are getting the support they need. Throughout the pandemic we have seen an increase in kinship care due to comfortability, safety concerns, and affordability. So it was imperative that we pushed for increased reimbursement rates for license-exempt child care providers, because just because you’re a child’s aunt, uncle, or grandparent does not mean you should not be compensated for your time and effort.

However, we know more must be done to accomplish our goal for equity for all children regardless of color or whether live in a city, suburb, or rural area that is equitable. Recognizing this need is why we have a four-part policy playbook that focuses on issues from early childhood to parent support and adult education. Because we know that in order to achieve the best outcomes, we need the entire family to be supported. In order to realize this, we must push policy that is smart and works on behalf of the people. For example, during the 2017-2018 year, 1,400 children were expelled from child care. They were disproportionately male children of color, only furthering inequity by disproportionately creating child care issues for their parents that often could be prevented if providers had more tools. We can reduce this through the Michigan Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation program, which can reduce the expulsion rate greatly.

Another way to create smart, equitable policy is creating policy that does not punish youth for being unconventional in our cookie cutter education system. The barriers young people face to graduation range from homelessness to various other forms of physical and mental trauma. We combat this through supporting investments to prevent those experiences along with integrated student supports, multiple pathways to graduation that provide more time and flexibility for students. This is helpful because the data shows us that a 5th or 6th year in high school increases graduation rates for all subgroups.

That is what Juneteenth is about – freedom, including the freedom to acknowledge how institutional racism and inequities are holding this nation back. So as federal and state legislators make it an official holiday and we are granted an extra vacation day, I implore you to research how Black-Americans have observed the holiday in the past, take time to reflect, and ask questions. What can I do to challenge white supremacy? How can I fight for equity in my own community? And in what ways am I willing to challenge myself? Because smart policy starts with us asking for equitable policies, and through smart policy we can build better systems that benefit us all and ultimately make us better. Happy Juneteenth.

Stephen Wallace is the Regional Engagement and Mobilization Associate for Michigan’s Children.