A few days ago, President Biden signed an act into law that established June 19th as a national holiday. The day, better known as Juneteenth, celebrates the occasion when union officers entered Texas and informed enslaved Black people that the Civil War had ended and that they were now free citizens of the United States.
Juneteenth is an important day to the Black Americans who celebrate it, and I’m not here to make any particular arguments regarding the holiday itself. Congress already debated it, and support was overwhelming. But it wasn’t unanimous; not everyone voted in favor. The New York Times published an article detailing the names and statements of the 14 congress
people white dudes who voted against the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Instead of listening to me wax woke about supporting a holiday with widespread support, let’s talk about the elected officials who didn’t support it.
Some of them took issue with the bill’s wording. If there were a “right answer” to the question “why did you vote ‘no’ on the Juneteenth resolution?”, it’s probably that, some technical concern about semantics. (But even that’s generous). Their argument? “Black Independence Day” sounds kinda weird in the context of American Independence Day. Our shared historic holiday commemorates political independence from the British Empire. Calling it “Black Independence Day” draws forth misleading parallels, implying to some that June 19th was the day Black Americans became politically independent from the United States. It’s as understandably confusing as it is clearly inaccurate. No one believes Black Americans formed their own country in 1865. And while Black citizens didn’t claim political independence, the holiday does commemorate a certain sort of personal independence from the institution of slavery and the plantations that claimed ownership of them.
That’s one way to interpret “Black Independence Day”. Another is that this was the day, nearly a century late, that Black Americans finally received a portion of the rights afforded to every American, the rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution. On July 4th, White Americans can celebrate the day that their government first promised to them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Black Americans, the day doesn’t share the same legacy. At the time their White neighbors were guaranteed these rights, the vast majority of Black people living in the United States were living under slavery. July 4th changed their status from British slaves to American slaves. It wasn’t until they graduated from slavery to citizenry that the rights conferred on the 4th made their way to them. In short, June 19th was the first day most Black Americans were able to celebrate the rights and values promised by the movement that brought forth American Independence.
So I get where the “I voted no because of the ‘Independence Day’ part” argument comes from. One Republican congressman wrote that he would have voted in favor of “Emancipation Day”. That’s not a bad idea. It’s also not a good enough idea to justify holding up the creation of the holiday. Either way, these are the guys who, in my mind, almost get a pass. Everyone else is too stupid.
The dummies form two groups: the hardcore conservatives and the outright racists. Is it possible that these groups overlap? Bingo Bango. It’s obviously worth noting that, exempting the 2016-2018 night terror years, being openly racist is never as in vogue in America as being sneaky racist. A politically-laundered reasoning for voting against pro-minority legislation will always do better than an appeal from race. So we should be cautious when reading truth from these statements, but we should also recognize what it means to be openly racist in a system that dulls open racism.
Anyway, let’s get to the conservative argument. It’s pretty simple: paid holidays are bad and workers, especially federal workers, don’t deserve them. They already have way too many. It’s not the idea of Juneteenth they’re against, it’s that making it a federal holiday gives government employees a paid day off and that sucks.
That this justification isn’t outwardly racist is the only kind thing I can say about it. Having weathered a pandemic (poorly), this country remains economically strong. As our economy grows further and further and we careen toward automation, having the same few federal holidays we’ve had for fifty years is a joke. This is a wack hill to die on, and maybe the wrong day to try to enforce additional labor.
I’m done writing about the palatable conservative arguments. Let’s get into the racism. For this part of the article, I’m gonna bend the definition of “outwardly racist” to include arguments so bad, they can only be caused by racist thinking. Bear with me.
The first of these is my favorite: enacting a federal holiday on June 19th invalidates and takes away from the special day that is the Fourth of July. To be fair, most of the congressman who voted ‘no’ shy away from a justification this shitty. The guy who gets closest is Kentucky’s Thomas Massie who said, “Naming this day ‘National Independence Day’ would create confusion and push Americans to pick one of those two days as their independence day based on their racial identity,”. You gotta pick and choose, folks. You can’t celebrate both. This idea has since flown on the internet, where angry Fourth of July connoisseurs point out that another holiday so close in proximity will destroy it. Honestly, agreed. Christmas was great before Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day fucked it up. Now no one celebrates Rudolph and Santa Claus is six years dead.
If having another holiday weeks away from yours makes it worse, your holiday sucks. If you’re a bona fide 4th stan, what are you afraid of? That Black people are gonna buy out all the hot dogs and fireworks?
On that note, let’s move on to the star of the show: racism. Again, these statements are politically-filtered, so we’re not gonna get any “I vote ‘no’ because I hate anyone darker than eggshell!” Still, Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar’s “Juneteenth is more debunked Critical Race Theory in action.” comes close. ‘Debunked critical race theory’ isn’t even well-coded. The holiday celebrates a day when historically-documented officials delivered news to historically-documented people. We should get rid of MLK day too, while we’re at it; who knows if he really had a dream at all. Sounds like Critical Race Theory in action.
Other Representatives, like California’s Tom McClintock, come from the school that teaches racism is over, a dead relic of the past. Americans who loved having slaves in January of 1865 equally loved their freed Black neighbors in December. Lynch mobs, Jim Crow, and the KKK were minor glitches in an otherwise-perfect system.
Montana’s Matt Rosendale put out a statement that reads more like an angry Facebook status: “This isn’t an effort to commemorate emancipation, it’s very clearly tied to the larger hard-left agenda to enshrine the racial history of this country as the prime aspect of our national story,”. It’s important to trudge past the initial layer of bullshit and ignore the “prime aspect” part to recognize that he’s using a nonsense strawman (“enshrining the racial history of this country”) to justify not at all recognizing the racial history of this country.
I’m almost done. I’m not having fun anymore. But there’s one more: my neighbor, Wisconsin’s Tom Tiffany, who argues that Democrats “used their majority to balkanize our country and fuel separatism by creating a race-based ‘Independence Day.’”. This is, like, all the fun arguments in one from a guy who just learned the term “balkanize”. A necessary message of extraracial unity from the party that’s 87% white.
Look, I said at the beginning of all this that I wasn’t here to make a personal statement on Juneteenth as a holiday. I hold to that. This is something that’s more important to its impassioned group of affected supporters than it’ll ever be to me. I’m sitting that part out. But I do think it’s important to listen, first to them and then to the broader conversation. Some of the white dudes discussed above view racism in the past tense. But the statements of their colleagues dispute that suggestion. Read the statements I pasted above and tell me these guys aren’t speaking to crowds they know will eat their words up. What reads as batshit and goofy to us was politically calculated by them to fit their districts. If we can’t acknowledge even historical racism in this country without having elected officials dive down a Q-Anon-esque rabbit hole of Helter Skelter jargon, how can we begin to fool ourselves into thinking we’re post-racism?
I don’t know. Make sure to buy and freeze your hot dogs while you can.