This weekend, Juneteenth celebrations happened across the country commemorating the end of slavery ― the day when black men and women were ordered to be released from their chains. The question is, are we truly free?
That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom. Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1, 1863, but it wasn’t until the surrender of General Lee in 1865 that the news of freedom began to spread across the country. In Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, without social media or television news, and relying on the will of the slave master, many did not know they were free until a Unionist leader, Gordon Granger, landed in Galveston. Today, in black communities across the country we celebrate Juneteenth, for what is known to many as a day of true independence.
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.
Today, freedom looks like a majority white jury acquitting the police officer who shot a black man, not once or twice, but seven times in just over a minute during a traffic stop for a simple broken taillight. When asked for his identification, Philando Castile disclosed to the officer that he had a gun in the vehicle, intending to allay the officer’s fears as he reached for his identification. Nonetheless, even as Philando Castile tried to comply with the officer’s request, and reached for his identification, he was violently killed. We all witnessed Philando’s life end on Facebook Live, while his girlfriend filmed the incident, and her young child sat helplessly in the back seat. The police officer, claiming that he feared for his life, said the shooting was justified and today, that officer is free, while our community mourns yet another life that does not matter to a system that claims to provide justice for all.
After the acquittal was announced the day before hundreds of Juneteenth celebrations around the country, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton quite appropriately asked, “would this have happened if the driver were white?” We all know the answer to that question.
Our communities remain chained, bound by a criminal justice system that serves not to protect us, but to keep us in our place. African Americans make up the largest percentage of those in jails and prisons and they are overwhelmingly the victims of police shootings. The criminal justice system piles on fees on those that are poor and holds them in jails because they are too poor to post bond. The overwhelming majority of these poor people are people of color. Quite simply, for African Americans, the criminal justice system isn’t just broken, it literally works against us by profiting off our pain, tears, and our lives.
Philando Castile joins the long list of free black men and boys who have been murdered by police. Demoralized in the public square of social media as yet another hashtag, this a reminder that black men, even those who are compliant with the law are viewed as a threat, chained by a system that continues to sees us as three-fifths a person―even property.
It should come as no surprise that our schools fail to educate our black babies. The achievement gap in education between black and white students persists despite the supposed focus on closing this gap. Based on an assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the black and white gaps for 12th graders remain unacceptably large and, significantly, not very different from where the gaps were in 1965 after the Civil Rights Act was signed. Black literacy is a threat to a slave system.
Whereas, the having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money. Excerpt from South Carolina Act of 1740 Slave Code
Even when educated, our black boys may be murdered, without cause, for holding a packet of skittles or may be forced to watch their mothers be shot by police after calling the police for help and to report a burglary. The challenges our communities face are steep and seem never ending. Not only does the education system fail to adequately educate our kids, it burdens them with more out of school suspensions than their white counterparts. “Zero tolerance” policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules and police are too often brought in to address behavior that should be handled by school personnel. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push out trends and discriminatory application of discipline. Right here in Denver, the most diverse city in Colorado, our public school system remains the most segregated in the state.
I don’t ever want to ignore the tremendous progress we have made as a community and as a nation. We passed or otherwise enacted the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action. We even elected an African American as our president. But we must see through an authentic lens that vestiges of slavery exist to this day and we must collectively, intentionally and affirmatively confront these vestiges. As a policy maker and activist, I ask the question, what would it take to reach that promised land, to break the chains that bind us?
On January 1st, 1863, the slaves were set free. Have you received the good news?