Why Juneteenth?

Steve Silbiger, a longtime observer of Joe Biden, sent me the following message:

Biden is living proof of how much progress the United States has made on racial discrimination. The man who ran for President on a Southern strategy in which he claimed that “Delewareans were on the side of the South in the Civil War” has signed a bill that creates a Federal law commemorating the effective end of slavery in the United States.

Now if he can only keep his son, Hunter, from using the N word. . . .

The United States has progressed significantly in combatting racial discrimination. Joe Biden, a lagging indicator, has progressed, albeit rather fitfully, with it.

What about the law making Juneteenth a national holiday, though? Is it a good idea?

I believe the demise of slavery clearly is worth commemorating with a holiday. But there are two problems with the bill Biden signed into law.

First, there are already too many federal holidays. If a new one was to be created, an old one should have been removed from the calendar.

It’s easy to see Juneteenth leading to more federal holidays. Why shouldn’t feminists demand a holiday in honor of female suffrage, a huge advance for half of the U.S. population? And as Latinos become the numerically dominant minority group in America, it’s easy to imagine pandering politicians creating a holiday to honor them.

Congress should have established the principle that new holidays can be added only if old ones are subtracted. But of course, it didn’t.

The second problem in my view is the selection of Juneteenth to commemorate the end of slavery. Why not go with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation or the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment?

It’s true that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery only in territory not controlled by the Union at the time of issuance. But Lincoln’s declaration was a game-changer. Juneteenth was just mopping up, if even that. Furthermore, as I understand it, slavery persisted in a few areas even after it ended in Texas on “Juneteenth.”

I suspect the reason why most Black activists prefer commemorating Juneteenth is that it obscures the contributions of Whites to the demise of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by a White president. A White Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment. And both were the fruit of military victories achieved, at costs that stagger the imagination, by an almost entirely White army.

Juneteenth has the virtue of already being celebrated by Blacks in the South. That’s fine. Undoubtedly, they would have continued to celebrate it without an act of Congress, just as Jews celebrate their holidays.

But the end of slavery was a national effort. I would have preferred selection of a national event as the marker for a holiday that commemorates the demise of slavery.

Unfortunately, that was never in the cards in the current divisive racial climate.

NOTE: The original version of this post managed to reverse the area to which the Emancipation Proclamation applied — an error that would embarrass a schoolboy.

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