Juneteenth — A Promise Unfulfilled

On June 19, 1865, African-Americans in Texas received word that they had been freed from slavery as of January 1, 1863. In that one sentence lies the root of the conflicted nature of Juneteenth as a symbol of the unfulfilled promise made by the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal.”

See, Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of the slaves — but by celebrating the date when Texas blacks were told about the Emancipation Proclamation, 2 years after it was enacted. Moreover, the news was followed by many former slave owners simply refusing to recognize emanicpation. Some told their newly freed former slaves that Emancipation was a Yankee lie. Some simply dared them to try and leave servitude. Many who did try were beaten or killed with no real recourse.

Legally sanctioned slavery gave way to legally sanctioned racial discrimination. Enforcement came through the original night riders of the Ku Klux Klan starting in the late 19th century and periodic lynchings to remind “uppity” African-Americans they lived under permanent threat of immediate and unprovoked death sentence. Lynchings were public events, drawing huge crowds, spurring sales of penny postcards of the charred,  remains of innocent, slaughtered black men hanging from tree, surrounded buy smiling white people — including children. Even today, a single southern Senator blocks federal anti-lynching legislation, perpetuating the threat of KKK-style killings.

By the time statues were being built shortly after the Civil War to commemorate Confederate traitors who led troops in killing loyal U.S soldiers, Southern whites had restored their role of racial dominance. The statues were to serve as permanent reminders that the war was over and might have been lost, but the struggle to suppress dark-skinned people continued and was being won. The so-called “Jim Crow” laws were really just a codification of the expectations of white society.

As a white guy growing up in de facto segregation in an almost exclusively white suburb and attending a public high school with only one African-American student out of over a thousand, I have had to realize the institutional racism I was raised in. My parents were not overtly racist and became angry when one of my letters to the editor referred to our  suburb as segregated. But when a cousin was over for dinner in the late 60’s, it was my older brother, not my parents who told him to stop using the n-word which he had been repeating a lot. He looked startled but complied.

Like many genteel whites, my parents simply felt racism was a fading issue. It never entered into their lives. They didn’t do anything overtly racist. They didn’t like public displays of racism. But weren’t thing getting better with the new Civil Rights Law and Voting Act? No need for marches or boycotts when so much progress was being made. We didn’t know the term “white privilege” yet, but we lived it unconsciously every day and like many of us white people, they thought if we just ignored racism, it would go away.

It didn’t.

Years later, I worked on a major diversity training package for the state of Texas in the early 90s. It’s another promising story of a bureaucracy’s clumsy attempt to address systemic racism across what was at the time Texas’s largest state agency, with over 20,000 employees.

I did not know that the first meeting I was asked to attend was only the most recent, small part of a much larger struggle internally. With the psychiatric hospitals and state school for the developmentally delayed spread across the state, located mostly in rural areas, our facilities had a broad range of ethnic mixes that inevitably reflected the general population in that particular region. So, while most facilities, like Texas, had majority-white employees, others were majority African-American employees (Terrell State Hospital) or Latino (down in the Rio Grande Valley). But the bureaucracy itself remained mired in traditions intricately bound with racism and a hierarchy heavily weighted with whites at the highest levels of management system-wide, with only a few notable exceptions.

The whole story unfortunately degenerates into how to fumble a diversity drive. Long before I arrived on the scene, there had been a push for a high-level diversity officer and a system-wide training push to address issues ofracial inequity. By the time I showed up to learn more in order to design the training materials, this effort had been ongoing internally for some time. African-American leaders in the organization pushing for it were increasingly impatient. Seeing me attend my first meeting, one groaned, “Not another white guy!” He turned to me, adding, “Nothing against you personally, but here we go again. We’re starting over?” he asked incredulously.

Turns out, the people demanding the training program had already selected a specific video series they wanted to supply to every facility. All they wanted from our Central Office training department was support materials for using these videos as the backbone for the training initiative. My job would be to write a “wrapper” for each of the 10 videos in a package tying them all together. Good work, mildly challenging, but mostly a grind of getting it done. I learned a great deal about the value of diversity and challenges we might face and felt like we had a decent training package on the way.

TXMHMR did create a new position for a diversity coordinator — but not at the level that had been requested. The original team wanted the diversity director to report directly to Commissioner so that no one else could overrule them. That did not happen. That alone was a signal of less-than-full support.

Meanwhile, they hire the new Diversity Officer. Who, it turns out, has her own preferred video she intends to use instead of the series we have purchased and I am writing support materials for. Moreover, most of the people involved in our effort so far thought the video the Diversity Officer intended to use was, well, stupid. So, we’re investing a lot of time and money developing a major package of materials for required training for all staff system-wide (yikes!) — and our main spokesperson for the effort is completely unsupportive of the curriculum or the video series.

Did I mention we had to do an end run around budget rules to buy these videos? Uh, yeah, but let’s not go into that here, okay?

So, yeah, we’re stumbling towards completion of the curriculum and plan a huge launch effort with people coming in from all over the state for a major 2-day event. Which damned near blows up in our face due to the fact that once you open up this can of worms, it turns out they are a lot of strong feelings that quickly come to the surface, stated strongly. By the time verbal fireworks had to be cooled off just short of actual fisticuffs breaking out for the second time that first morning, I knew we were doomed. The training package would not make much of any difference. It certainly would not make much of anything better, not system-wide. Perhaps it would prompt some difficult but productive conversations on the local level. Mostly, I hoped it would not make things worse. I still have my copy of the “wrapper” materials but not, of course, the slyly obtained videos. I have little doubt the ones we distributed were possibly looked at, maybe even used a bit, but set aside pretty quickly amid the daily return to business as usual.

One key point that I do remember from the diversity training debacle was that it will take changing the hearts and minds of everyone but particularly white people to advance the cause of celebrating diversity. In that training context, we suggested team-teaching the topic and pairing a white male instructor with an African-American or Latino instructor. Diversity is achieved together. That’s true in society and our communities as well.

Juneteenth rolls around every year and reminds us that the struggle to fulfill the promise of our founders continues. As long as we continue to move forward to freedom and racial justice, we keep marching onward, working together to make that promise a reality. It’s no easy walk to freedom, as the song warns us, but a worthy one.

Year by year, more and more people celebrate Juneteenth and learn more about its history and current context. Already recognized as a state holiday by Texas and some others, Juneteenth has been proposed as a federal holiday. We need that. The current racial unrest over disproportionate and questionable killings of blacks by police officers shows how far we still have to go. Juneteenth should offer a way to bring us back together as Americans celebrating freedom.

Juneteenth flagThis year, I discovered the Juneteenth flag for the first time.

The red, white and blue colors remind us that the former slaves and their descendants are Americans. The lone star in the center represents Texas, where the good news spawned the holiday celebrated across the country today. And the surrounding bursting star represents the new dawning of freedom.

Wave that flag wide & high today as we celebrate Juneteenth.

About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
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