Commentary

This Juneteenth: Celebrate, then legislate

June 19, 2022 8:10 am

This year, New Jersey celebrated Juneteenth as a state holiday for the second time — but are policy makers following through with less symbolic gestures? (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

Juneteenth — also known as Freedom Day — marks the day on June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, learned about their freedom, more than two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

New Jersey is celebrating Juneteenth as a state holiday this year for the second time. It’s an important gesture, and the celebrations are inspiring. Symbolism matters.

But symbolism is not nearly enough.

In order to make the promise of freedom full and real, meaningful investment and policy must accompany our proclamations. That is as true today as it was a century and a half ago.

Sadly, even two years after our streets were bursting with cries for racial justice, New Jersey has not stepped up to the plate.

Despite being a northern state known for its progressivism, the Garden State suffers from extraordinary racial disparities. Our racial wealth gap is one of the worst in America, as are our racial disparities relating to incarceration, infant mortality, and education.

These gaps can be filled with strategic investments – investments that say we truly believe in freedom realized, not just proclaimed. Yet there are several bills pending in our state legislature lacking legislators’ political will and courage for passage.

We must do better.

When it comes to policing, the legislature can pass legislation (S265/A2431) to completely ban chokeholds like the one that killed George Floyd, and to establish civilian review boards (A1515to create accountability in law enforcement.

To expand our democracy at a time when it is on life support across the nation, New Jersey can pass pending legislation (A1966/S247) to establish same-day voter registration — the simple, secure ability to register and vote on the same day that would prevent the voter disenfranchisement that occurs at each election.

To work toward economic equity, we can pass bills to prohibit discrimination in home appraisals (A1519/S777), a critical step as home ownership is a key driver of wealth. And we can establish a Baby Bonds program to provide low-income youth, many of color, the resources they need to thrive and transition successfully into adulthood (A1579/S768). Both of these bills would help close New Jersey’s gaping racial wealth gap.

And finally, to repair the harm from New Jersey’s deep roots in slavery and its lingering aftermath, we can pass pending legislation to create a Reparations Task Force (A938/S386) to study our state’s unique equities and propose policy solutions to address them.

All of these bills are strategic. They are powerful. And they are doable.

Most importantly, they will bring us further along on our ongoing journey toward fulfilling the freedom promised but not completed on that day in 1865.

So this Juneteenth, yes — let’s celebrate. But to make that celebration really mean something, let’s also legislate.

Please visit our Action Center to urge your elected officials to act now.

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Ryan Haygood
Ryan Haygood

Ryan P. Haygood is president & CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

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