President Joe Biden passed a bill on Thursday to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Juneteenth, which black Americans have celebrated since 1866, commemorates the end of legalized slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865 and has become a larger celebration honored by black communities across the country.
Juneteenth is a pivotal moment in considering how race has shaped economic inequality.
Over the past year, public interest in Juneteenth has grown dramatically, and many large companies have started offering employees a paid day off (or reduced workload) to coincide with the public holiday.
In a statement from JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, CEO of the company, justified the decision to close all Chase branches early on June 19 as an effort to demonstrate “a deep respect for the suffering that the black community has endured for decades. hundreds of years ”. In a statement on Twitter, Lyft explained the company’s decision to start an annual celebration on June 17 as “a step in our continued journey to racial equality at Lyft and in this country. “
Meanwhile, a Juneteenth marketing campaign was scrapped by Old Navy after criticism from black influencers. It probably won’t be the last time brands have stumbled in trying to commemorate – and perhaps market – the holidays. As we’ve seen with other celebrations of marginalized groups, including Black History Month or Pride Month, many companies will tweet promotional slogans, showcase new merchandise, and pretend to promote diversity. and inclusion. It’s much harder to do the real job of fairness: championing progressive policies, lobbying lawmakers, and implementing inclusive practices that expand opportunities for all.
This is not to say that the growing interest in Juneteenth and its recognition as a national holiday lacks merit. They are, in large part, a response to the uprisings that have taken place over the past year following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
But efforts so far barely scratch the surface when it comes to the broader issues facing black Americans. The growing impulse among business owners to commemorate Juneteenth represents a symbolic gesture – with some financial commitment from employers offering paid days off. Yet businesses can make a much more meaningful commitment to racial equality by taking action to close the huge wealth gap between black and white Americans.
The wealth of an average black family in the United States today is only a tenth of that of a white family.
The facts are startling: the average wealth of a black family in the United States today is only one-tenth that of a white family. Very little has changed in recent years. A 2018 report by economists Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick and Ulrike I. Steins concluded that “no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years “.
This racial wealth gap is directly linked to the history of slavery. In 1860, the slave population of the United States was worth an estimated $ 3.5 billion. According to historian David Blight, slaves were “the greatest financial asset in the entire American economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” The four million blacks who were enslaved at the start of the civil war played a significant role in building the country’s wealth.
Profits from cotton production in the South made the United States one of the world’s leading economies before the Civil War. The lower Mississippi Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region in the country during this period. As white slave owners lined their pockets for generations, enslaved blacks were brutally exploited and denied the opportunity to create their own wealth.
The massive wealth amassed from slavery was not limited to the southern region of the United States. Northern cities benefited greatly from slavery and invested heavily in the transatlantic slave trade. In New York, for example, insurance companies in the 19th century sold life insurance policies to slaves to help protect the wealth of slavers.
The end of legalized slavery – with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 – created new economic and educational opportunities for blacks. Yet roadblocks, such as the Jim Crow laws, emerged to limit black political, economic and social rights. And the sharecropping system that developed in the South after the Civil War increased black debt and limited black access to wealth.
Many companies will tweet promotional slogans, introduce new merchandise, and pretend to promote diversity and inclusion.
A continuing cycle of racist and exclusionary practices, such as redlining, combined with discriminatory federal and state policies that deny African Americans financial resources have further deepened economic inequalities in the United States. Historical developments like the Tulsa Race massacre in 1921 – whose 100th anniversary was recently commemorated by Americans – illustrate the sometimes violent efforts of whites to impede the economic progress of blacks. Historians estimate as many as 300 black residents died in the massacre – although the number is likely much higher. The massacre displaced Black Tulsans from their homes and they lost millions of dollars – roughly $ 1.8 million in 1921, which is $ 26.1 million today.
These are just a few historical examples that help explain the huge wealth gap that currently exists in the United States. As a group of researchers from the Brookings Institution recently concluded, “Wealth has been drawn from [Black] communities before he had the opportunity to grow. It’s no wonder that a typical white family has a net worth of $ 171,000, nearly ten times that of a black family in the United States. These strong racial disparities fundamentally shaped the experiences of blacks, undoubtedly hampering opportunities and limiting access in various sectors of society.
And this reality cannot be separated from the history of slavery – which is why Juneteenth is a pivotal moment in considering how race has shaped economic inequality.
Traditional holiday celebrations are important, as are corporate efforts to commemorate the date by giving a day off or a reduced workload. However, the increased attention paid to Juneteenth should push American companies to do more than offer symbolic gestures. A more impactful commitment would be for companies to make a concerted effort to help close the huge wealth gap. For example, more investment in black businesses and communities would not only help improve economic conditions for blacks, but would also boost the US economy.
On June 17, we must keep in mind how racism has fueled the huge black-white wealth gap in the United States. As economist Trevon Logan convincingly argued in POLITICO, “Juinth only makes sense if you think and talk about the end of slavery in the United States, how it happened – and what that this moment has meant for those who have been emancipated. “