CELEBRATING JUNETEENTH IS GREAT. SUPPORTING ANTI-RACIST POLITICS IS BETTER.
White Americans are finally joining Black Americans in the celebration of Juneteenth on its 155th anniversary. Juneteenth, marks the date–June 19th, 1865–upon which enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were finally made aware of their freedom, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. This first Juneteenth is the enactment of Black liberation and an attempt to fulfill the decree that all men are created equal. As we commemorate this freedom celebration, it is important to remember the lesson that the first Juneteenth offers for our present moment: Your values and principles matter to the extent that they are translated into policies that are upheld and enforced. On this emancipation day, we hope to alert White America to the current principle-policy gap before us. It is not enough to proclaim #BlackLivesMatter on your social media. As White Americans are rapidly shifting their views on racism, they must also rapidly shift their civic engagement and support for progressive policies that will lead to racial equity.
As two Black women with doctorates from Harvard and expertise in racism and anti-racism, we have received an outpouring of support and inquiries from White friends, asking what they can do in this moment. They, like so many others, are awakening to the fact that racism is still as American as apple pie. According to a recent nation-wide poll 76% of Americans feel that racial discrimination is a significant problem in the United States, including 71% of White Americans. This same poll reveals that nearly half (49%) of White Americans believe that police are more likely to use excessive force against Black Americans; this number has nearly doubled since 2016 when only 25% of Whites believed racial disparities existed in the use of excessive force. Numbers from this poll have manifested in weeks of global protests, viral hashtags, corporate declarations of solidarity with the Black community, and the toppling of monuments to racism. We would love to believe that the United States is on the precipice of finally fulfilling the promise in its name.
We will end up back here, appalled by yet another viral video broadcasting the murder of a Black loved one, unless those who benefit from Whiteness actively decide not to neglect an important but lagging aspect of anti-racist work: connecting anti-racist attitudes to progressive politics.
Research has shown that since the mid-twentieth century White Americans have increasingly demonstrated support for principles of racial equality. These beliefs, however, have not translated to their support for policies–for example Affirmative Action–that would improve material conditions for Black people. Similarly, research shows that White Americans’ support of equality principles have not been reflected in support for social proximity, such as a willingness to reside in the same neighborhoods as Black Americans. White people must put principles into practice. They must thoroughly examine their justified outrage at anti-Black racial violence and use this fire to fuel political action. Now is the time to channel protest politics and urban uprisings into immediate radical policy change when it comes to law enforcement.
Urban uprisings in response to racism are nothing new in America. After the rebellions against systemic racism in 1967, the Johnson-appointed Kerner Commission found and reported that White racial attitudes and behaviors toward Black Americans were a fundamental cause of the 150 uprisings of the period. One of the conclusions reached by the commission was that achieving racial justice in America “will require new attitudes, new understanding, and above all, new will.” Still missing is the American will to achieve racial justice.
This 52-year-old report is shocking, not simply because it reads like an account of what is happening right now, but because it is a rarely seen attempt to acknowledge the role that White beliefs, attitudes, and ideas about race and racism play in perpetuating the system of racism. From Mitt Romney marching to affirm that Black Lives Matter to White congressional members misguidedly wearing Kente cloth while taking a knee to demonstrate their solidarity with protestors, it appears that important shifts in racial attitudes are unfolding. Without significant changes in White Americans’ commitment to policy and politics that reimagine the role of law enforcement and the possibilities for public safety, we will not see sustained institutional change.
Psychologist Kenneth B. Clark–famous for his doll studies in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision–was brought before the Kerner Commission as a witness. He had seen similar reports on the 1919 riot in Chicago and the Harlem riots of 1935 and 1943, and presciently remarked, “I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission–it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland–with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, the same inaction.” His words still ring true today.
Certainly, there has always been a subset of White Americans who have been actively involved in the political struggle for racial justice. From White abolitionists fighting to end slavery to White freedom riders fighting to end segregation in the 1960s, White allies have been an important contingent of the coalition working to dismantle structural racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, these freedom fighters have been in the minority. It is long overdue for a majority of White Americans to put their principles into practice.
White friends, the most important thing you can do to ensure that not one more Black life is unjustly taken is to bridge the gap between your anti-racist principles and your support for policies. Put your ballot where your beliefs are. To celebrate Juneteenth this year, take a step beyond public declarations of support and performances of solidarity on social media. Pledge to do better and put your good where it will do the most. Educate yourself about your local law enforcement agencies and elected officials. Work to elect progressive district attorneys. Write to your elected officials to express your support for policies that defund and demilitarize the police and reinvest in communities. Push elected officials to stop taking donations from police unions. Vote for politicians and policies that lead to real racial equity. If not now, when?
Dr. Raygine DiAquoi is an assistant professor of sociomedical sciences and assistant dean of diversity at Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health.
Dr. Nicole Arlette Hirsch is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and a diversity, equity & inclusion consultant. She is also the great-niece of Dr. Kenneth B. Clark.