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As Juneteenth approaches, USC experts examine the persistence of racism and resistance

This year, the celebration of emancipation comes amid protests that beg the question: How far has America really come since 1865?

Juneteenth 2020 celebration
This Juneteenth, we should think about what the holiday intended to commemorate and what freedom has looked like over the past 155 years, says USC expert Sharoni Little. (Illustration/iStock)

With protest fires still burning, Juneteenth will take on a significance rarely seen since 1865.

On June 19 of that year, word of emancipation finally reached slaves in Galveston, Texas — the far boundary of the former Confederacy — 2 1/2 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Blacks throughout the United States have marked the anniversary with a holiday known as Juneteenth.

A 2020 presidential campaign rally for President Donald Trump was scheduled for June 19, then pushed back a day. The event will still be held in Tulsa, Okla., where a century ago hundreds of Black Americans were killed and thousands were injured in a racist massacre that destroyed an affluent community referred to as “Black Wall Street.” The juxtaposition of a rally being held on a date marking the end of slavery, and in a location that harkens back to a racially motivated massacre, outraged many across the country.

“President Trump has chosen Tulsa, the site of a terrible racial cleansing of African Americans from the early 20th century’s Black Wall Street, to carry his message of bigotry and xenophobia to his voter base. And he had originally chosen Juneteenth, the date on which African Americans in Texas celebrated emancipation from slavery,” said Ariela Gross, professor of law and history at the USC Gould School of Law. “If he did so knowingly, it demonstrates breathtaking cynicism; if unknowingly, breathtaking historical ignorance.”

“Holding a presidential campaign rally on Juneteenth, especially while our nation is standing in such strong opposition to anti-Blackness, is a deliberate, inexcusable act of anti-Blackness,” concurred Shaun Harper, Provost Professor of Education and Business and founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center.

Reflecting on the work that must be done

Alaina Morgan, assistant professor of history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said Juneteenth 2020 brings a rare chance to redefine liberty.

“What is the meaning of freedom?” she asked. “What are the contours of freedom and how is it an illusion? As a historian of anti-colonialism, Islam, and the Black freedom struggle, my research examines a number of mechanisms that Black people across the African diaspora have successfully used to challenge white supremacy including religion, protest, and legal and legislative mechanisms.

“In recent weeks, protesters have taken to the streets to demand justice for the victims of police violence and to insist on institutional change. On Friday, African Americans will celebrate Juneteenth, the commemoration of the official end of chattel slavery three and a half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Ongoing protests make this Juneteenth significant and this year presents an opportunity to reflect on the notion of freedom and the work that must be done to sustain it.”

This Juneteenth, the struggle for freedom continues

Robeson Taj Frazier, associate professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and director of the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg, sees Juneteenth not as a celebration of freedom but of resilience.

We were not freed. We have constantly struggled to free and liberate ourselves and others.

Robeson Taj Frazier

“Juneteenth is an important remembrance and celebration of Black resistance and struggles for freedom and liberation,” he said. “In the United States and elsewhere, Black people and others come together to commemorate the ancestors and social movements that upended slavery and who after its abolishment struggled against new forms and systems of racial violence, death, and injustice. It is a demonstration of Black joy; a celebration of Black family, community, and networks of kinship; and an altar to honor the people of past, present, and future whose sacrifices and resilience help mobilize and sustain us and raise our consciousness.

“What is ultimately important to recognize about Juneteenth is that it is not a celebration of the ‘freeing’ of Black people but rather of Black people’s agency in rejecting and resisting dehumanization and terror. We were not freed. We have constantly struggled to free and liberate ourselves and others.”

Racism affects “where we live, work, learn, and pray”

Jody Armour — who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making, as well as torts and tort reform movements, as the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the USC Gould School of Law — sees a racist infrastructure enduring to the present day.

“Institutional and structural racism is something that lingers and lasts,” he said. “Even if we were able to get rid of all prejudice, even if we were able to put something in the water tomorrow that had us all wake up and not feel any racial animosity towards anybody, we would still have neighborhoods that have crumbling schools.

What did freedom look like over the past 155 years? Freedom for whom? What is freedom? Have we achieved it?

Sharoni Little

“Institutional racism goes to what banks will loan what money to what customers, what neighborhoods they will make mortgage loans in. It goes to the fact that a lot of Black neighborhoods are close to environmental toxins. That’s why Black people have a higher asthma rate; a factor when it comes to coronavirus and making it more lethal. The legacy of racism is baked into our social and economic arrangements: where we live, work, learn, and pray, the quality of the air we breathe, the food we eat, the health care we get. It permeates every nook and cranny of our collective social existence.”

The irony of Juneteenth

Sharoni Little, associate dean and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the USC Marshall School of Business, points to a dual definition of freedom in the United States.

“Juneteenth is set aside to celebrate freedom,” she said. “The irony is that it marks a time more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation when Black people had not been given their full humanity and many did not yet know that legally, enslavement had ended. It also ushered in Jim Crow and continued segregation and dehumanization.

“The parallel with today is there has to not only be an announcement of change but the action of change. This Juneteenth, we should think about what was it intended to commemorate: What did freedom look like over the past 155 years? Freedom for whom? What is freedom? Have we achieved it?”

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As Juneteenth approaches, USC experts examine the persistence of racism and resistance

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