The U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval on Tuesday of legislation making June 19 or Juneteenth a federal holiday would seem ridiculously overdue, even routine by Capitol Hill standards, save for the matter of how political conservatives are using the teaching of slavery as yet another culture war issue to rally their base.
So while it’s all very well to recognize Juneteenth — June 19th, 1865, the day Texas finally freed its enslaved people, the last of the states to do so — as a great moment in history, the move takes on an added importance when there are so many conservatives going full throttle over efforts to give American schoolchildren a more honest, straightforward and less whitewashed view of slavery and the lasting impact its had on society. The reaction to simply updating school curriculum, to note such indisputable facts as how much enslaved people suffered or even how generations of their descendants have been treated as a permanent underclass socially and economically, has demonstrated the very white privilege those seeking to soft pedal American racism claim doesn’t exist.
At least six states have in recent weeks either adopted or advanced legislation aimed at limiting how public school teachers can discuss race and race relations in their classrooms. Often couched under the misused term, “critical race theory,” they would ban from curriculum any serious look at institutional racism. Oh, it would be all very well to admit whites held ownership of Black people for a large chunk of this country’s history, but connect the dots from that to the social maladies of today — from urban poverty to the murder of George Floyd? States like Oklahoma are drawing a line. Some of it seems downright comical, like the Sooner State’s ban on teaching that “moral character is inherently determined by his or her race or sex,” which no legitimate teacher would countenance. Nor would it be taught under critical race theory, which technically refers to an academic concept having to do with how racism is a social construct woven into laws and policies, but is now often used by conservatives as a catch-all for all explorations of systemic bias and privilege.
The danger here is that these ongoing efforts will have a chilling effect and deter teachers from having frank classroom conversations about slavery and its legacy. One can surely envision the problem. Start to make white students feel bad about what their forebears may have done? That could not only get you in trouble with your boss but sued by the parents who want slavery taught to their kids the way it was taught to them: briefly and lightly, before being set aside as something that died long ago with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
That’s why Juneteenth is more relevant than ever. The vast majority of U.S. states already recognize it for ceremonial purposes but not necessarily as an official state holiday. Legislation to declare it a state holiday in Maryland, for example, passed the House of Delegates this year but not the state Senate. It was an apparent victim of criticism over the cost of giving state employees a paid holiday at a time of relatively high unemployment statewide because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That was a missed opportunity but, fortunately, neither the legislature nor Gov. Larry Hogan have been seeking to reach into the classroom and gag teachers over discussing slavery.
Meanwhile, we applaud those non-governmental groups that have for years made it a point to recognize Juneteenth as an important day to reflect not only on our past but on our future. We would encourage people with a little time on their hands (and vaccine in their arms) to attend the various in-person gatherings this Saturday from a daylong celebration in Reservoir Hill to the parade at the Annapolis City Dock. This isn’t about feeling bad, it’s about feeling good and making this country a better, fairer, freer place for all its inhabitants. Those who never learn their true history (and the lasting consequences of it) are likely doomed to repeat it.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.