(Originally published here on June 22, 2021 in the South China Morning Post.)
It only took 155 years for the United States to make the full emancipation of enslaved African-Americans a federal holiday. But let’s put cynicism aside and consider the fact that that the US government made the change only within about a year of the wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Antifa demonstrations that rumbled through major US cities and small towns.
When news began circulating about the proposal to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, it seemed as though Americans were in for another cycle of this unrest. At the very least, we’d need to endure the barrage of dog-whistle racist rhetoric of those politicians and pundits aligned with the Trump regime.
Many conservative politicians, after all, pulled out the stops to support far-right protesters. Former president Donald Trump himself suggested that Kyle Rittenhouse – a teenager facing murder charges after opening fire on BLM protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with an AR-15-style rifle – was acting in self-defence, leading the charge of Republicans who tried to portray anyone demonstrating peacefully against police brutality as a bomb-wielding anarchist.
So the speed with which the proposal to officially give emancipation its day was passed by Congress and signed into law by US President Joe Biden seemed surreal. We endured a year of concern that racial strife was on the verge of consuming the country, then we blinked and the US took another significant step towards racial equality.
While the Juneteenth gesture is symbolic, it reflects the degree to which many Americans want to move beyond the chaos that inequality causes for everyone, even those behind the highest walls of the country’s gated communities.
America is still in the midst of a cultural backlash against the police killings of Black Americans such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, as well as the underlying problems that allowed so many of them to occur. This is not to mention the regular public lynchings, Jim Crow voting laws and other methods of intimidation in the not-too-distant past that made a joke of the claim the US is “a city on a hill”.
The percentage of US adults who expressed support for BLM declined from 67 per cent last June to 55 per cent in September, according to data published by Pew Research Centre. The decline might seem disheartening for the country’s social justice activists, but consider that support remained the majority view even after months of attempts by Republicans – including America’s president – to portray the left as cop-killers and people like Rittenhouse as victims.
Knowing that a majority of Americans are weary of the damage inequality has caused has no doubt helped embolden Biden to lead a charge against those trying to restrict democratic rights at home and abroad. We saw his dedication to this cause on full display in Britain and Europe last week.
But the US lags behind a surprisingly long list of other countries in election participation, ranking 26th of 32 nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, also according to Pew. In most of these countries, Election Day is a holiday, a measure many voting rights activists point out is necessary to make access to the polls easier for those with less-flexible work schedules.
So this raises a question about Juneteenth. Wouldn’t the cause of democracy and racial equality have been furthered more by finally, after years of proposals in Congress and haranguing by civic activists, making Election Day a public holiday?
The global “democratic recession” that Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken keep warning about, and which the US government uses as a basis for sanctions and denunciations of leaders from Hong Kong to Minsk and Tehran, will continue unless the leaders of every democratic country pull out the stops to support better access to the polls.
Despite Biden’s efforts in Brussels and the passage of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, America’s most sacred civic exercise continues to be threatened by politicians trying to curb measures meant to make voting easier, such as automatic absentee ballot registration.
In Geneva last week, Biden portrayed his face-to-face meeting with Russian PresidentVladimir Putin as a chance to tell him and the rest of the world where Washington stands on democracy. He should use some of that tenacity to make a few free hours on Election Day for every American one of his administration’s top priorities.
It will take more than a blink.