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Juneteenth: Understanding America’s Most Divisive Holiday

Jonny Lang | North America Fellow

Charlotte NAACP Protest on June 8th, 2020. Image: Leslie Cross via Unsplash
‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’

There are few lines in literary history that have commanded as much attention as Orwell’s utterance in his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the slogan of the fictitious Ministry of Truth, a bureaucratic body whose purpose is to revise historical records such that the past better conforms with the ideals of the present. Reflecting the zeitgeist of the post-war era, the quote serves as a warning regarding the threat authoritarianism poses to historical objectivity.

For a country which considers itself to be a beacon of democracy, the deliberate alteration of the past should represent an unfathomable course of action. On first impression, it might seem strange, almost nonsensical, to suggest that the quote could have any relevance to the United States. However, following the re-emergence of political tensions that accompanied the most recent Juneteenth celebrations, it is becoming increasingly difficult to not draw parallels.

Juneteenth is a commemorative holiday designed to celebrate the day in which the last enslaved African Americans were granted basic freedoms. This occurred on 19 June 1865 in Galveston, Texas – more than two years after Lincoln formally emancipated slaves in Confederate states via an executive proclamation.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to formally celebrate the holiday. In the following decades, many states would follow suit. However, after the death of George Floyd in May 2020, reckoning about systemic racism was at the forefront of the national consciousness. Biden acted accordingly, imposing a federal mandate in June 2021 which compelled all remaining states to recognise the holiday.

Biden proudly regards the action as a defining moment of his presidency. However, beneath the veneer of social progress, tensions continue to simmer away. On the left, activists continue to denounce the glacial pace at which civil rights programs produce any meaningful changes for African Americans. On the right, the push for equality continues to be met with one of the consistent features of American society: the politics of white resentment.

The most recent passing of the Juneteenth holiday has, once again, prompted a divisive conversation around racial inequality. The process of cultivating racial inclusion continues to fan the rage that burns across the more conservative factions of the country, and the consequences of this are becoming more severe with each passing year. Towards the end of Trump’s presidency, his administration pushed for an overhaul of the education system, seeking to reduce the legacy of slavery in the nation’s curriculum. During an interview earlier this year, he revealed an updated educational blueprint for his forthcoming presidential campaign. Amidst a suite of proposed changes, his program is centred around a plan to penalise states that teach ‘critical race theory’ via the withdrawal of federal funding.

Against this backdrop, Florida Governor and current Republican presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis, signed into law a bill which restricts how race is taught in schools. This, however, did not represent an isolated incident. Since Biden assumed the presidency in January 2021, 17 other Republican states have imposed similar measures.

These actions speak volumes about the virulent strand of nationalism that continues to spread across the country. Cries to protect children from the indoctrinating influence of ‘woke ideology’ are becoming louder and more prominent. Fearful that the left’s agenda represents an existential threat to the America that they know and love, elements of the right are becoming increasingly dogmatic in their conviction that stopping the crusade that is political correctness is necessary to protect traditional American values.

The situation is nefarious. Many political commentators and academics are increasingly arguing that these actions represent egregious attempts to whitewash America’s political history. And while it is important that we reject the hyper-simplistic categorisation of right versus wrong in American politics, the realities of the nation’s history are unavoidable.

Indeed, the mistreatment of African Americans continues to represent the most damning transgression on the nation’s historical ledger. From slavery to sharecropping; Jim Crow to incarceration; public lynchings to police violence, American history is inextricably tied to race.

Attempts to hide this fact not only threaten to imperil America’s understanding of its past but, more importantly, undermine impetus to work towards a solution in the future.

A pillar of any healthy democracy is the free and truthful dissemination of knowledge and ideas. Central to this is maintaining the integrity of educational institutions. Yet, if the controversies surrounding Juneteenth have taught us anything, it is that America is at risk of democratic backsliding. As the nation continues to be splintered into opposing sides of the ideological debate, the battlegrounds in which its culture wars are being fought are becoming increasingly reckless; the classroom is no exception.

America must tread carefully, however. Failure to protect the institutions that undergird the nation’s social structures may result in irreversible damage to its democratic vitality. Damage which, day-by-day, threatens to inch America closer towards Orwell’s dystopia.

Jonny Lang is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of any other entity.


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