For Black Americans, Juneteenth is about liberation, not a marketing opportunity, says workplace diversity expert and consultant Kim Crowder.
Last year, U.S. President Joe Biden signed Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday. The decision was met with a mixture of celebration and confusion. A holiday that had mainly been celebrated in Black communities, particularly in Texas, was now being introduced to a larger audience. Many Americans were excited to set aside a specific day to celebrate the freedom of those who had been enslaved for hundreds of years. Others reacted with a sense of defiance. We can use Greg Kelly, the conservative television anchor, as an example from this year, who boldly tweeted in all-caps, “I'M BOYCOTTING ‘JUNETEENTH’-NO ONE EVEN KNOWS WHAT IT IS!!!”
Perhaps, without intending to do so, Kelly hit the nail on the head. It’s time for white Americans to learn about Juneteenth — and not just how it came to be, but also how its celebration can help move America forward.
Juneteenth commemorates the day the news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached every corner of the United States, the last of which was Texas, when federal orders were read in Galveston about two months after the Civil War ended and two years after the Proclamation was signed. Because Texas hadn’t experienced a big influx of Union troops during the war, it had become known as a safe haven for slavery, even after the war was over. We can only imagine what the news of freedom meant to those 250,000 individuals who had been enslaved and exploited in the Lone Star State. Starting the next year, June 19 was celebrated as “Jubilee Day.”
Today, Juneteenth remains a great cause for celebration. The 13th Amendment was an important step of progress toward equality and equity in the U.S. Those who don’t know what to do with the holiday may consider reflecting on that great ambition of freedom, as well as the continued steps needed to fully realize it.
The inconvenient truth is that the U.S. is still not fully free. One of the biggest campaigns finding popularity this month is #EndTheException, which calls attention to a few words built into the 13th Amendment that allow the practice of forced labor to continue.
Section 1 of the amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime wherof the party shall have been duly convicted [emphasis added], shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
#EndTheException calculates that every year incarcerated individuals lose over $14 billion in wages through forced labor.
The equality promised by the country's founding documents is also undercut by a racial wealth gap that has kept the proportion of U.S. businesses that are Black-owned to 2 percent, despite the fact that 13 percent of the population is Black.
Juneteenth’s own history points to the fact that progress sometimes requires great patience. Touré, of the popular Touré Show podcast, tweeted this week: “Juneteenth is bittersweet for me. It commemorates enslaved people in Texas finding out that they had been emancipated, great, but they had been emancipated two years earlier and it took two years for the message to reach them. That's tragic.”
But there’s no use waiting around if people aren’t putting in the work. And if achieving greater freedom requires work, that means businesses must be involved.
Perhaps companies should be most alert to how they can get Juneteenth wrong. Type “Juneteenth” into Twitter, and you find tweet after tweet decrying the commercialization of the holiday. We have all heard about how companies like Walmart and organizations like the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis have tried to capitalize on the holiday, and utterly failed.
There are many ways companies can do the right thing, though. On June 6, in a simple sentence, activist Lance Cooper tweeted an important point, “Support Black people before Juneteenth so it won’t look like a performance.” As a company, maybe now is the time to consider: Are you aiming to exploit the holiday to cushion your profits, or are you embracing its call for equity and taking a hard look at your own business, its operations and employees?
In an email to TriplePundit, workplace diversity expert Kim Crowder wrote: “It is not surprising that companies would work to capitalize from this historic day. We have seen this with freedom celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo. The issue is that it is likely for financial gain that does not further the cause of Black liberation through socioeconomic increase. If companies were directly sending all profits to Black U.S. communities or supporting Black businesses, that would be different.
“This is a repeat of why Juneteenth was needed,” Crowder continued. “It is basically commodifying the Black American experience by those who do not share those experiences and who have benefitted from the enslavement of people.”
Companies have their work cut out for them, and Crowder, who works day in and day out to help establish racial equity and inclusion into the fabric of businesses, outlined specific actions leaders can take to commemorate Juneteenth in a real way: “Organizations should be looking beyond one day and focusing on areas such as pay equity, promotions rates, the ability for Black team members’ work to be seen and acknowledged, and partnering with Black businesses regularly, including paying them well for their work.”
“The goal is to work toward Black liberation everyday,” Crowder added. “That is what Juneteenth stands for.”
Image credit: Rowan Heuvel/Unsplash
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.