Juneteenth and the Fine Print
Written by Drakirah Deichert, Hennepin Healthcare DEI Coach
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on 'til victory is won.”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black National Anthem rings through my ears as I think about the heartache, courage, and fight for Black American freedom and liberty. The promise of freedom and equality was provided through the written words of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of chattel slavery in the United States in 1865. This “freedom” does not come without its fine print. Today, Black Americans continue to fight for the promise of freedom by addressing systemic and state-sanctioned violence and inequity.
As Hennepin Healthcare works to serve our communities, it is important to understand how these systemic barriers impact the overall health of our Black and African American communities.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth (June – Nineteenth) is a commemoration of the end of chattel slavery in the United States, brought about by federal troops arriving in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to ensure that all enslaved people were indeed, freed. The troops’ arrival came two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, declared that all enslaved people in the states, “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”. On June 17th, 2021, Juneteenth was recognized as a federal holiday in the United States.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation states that Black Americans will be “forever free” there are three major fine prints that put an asterisk on Black and African American freedom - Mass Incarceration, Voter Suppression, and the War on Drugs.
According to the Institute to End Mass Incarceration, mass incarceration refers to “the reality that the United States criminalizes and incarcerates more of its own people than any other country in the history of the world and inflicts that enormous harm primarily on the most vulnerable among us: poor people of color (the Institute to End Mass Incarceration, 2023)”. At the core, mass incarceration is a network of policing, prosecution, and social control that is rooted in racial inequity and oppression. Presently, our prisons overrepresent Black/African American and Latine/x persons, although these two groups constitute less than one-third of the national population. Once entered into the prison system, the harm goes beyond the four walls – it infiltrates families and communities with continued discrimination in employment, housing, education, voting, and the dismantling of family bonds and structures.
While voting and having our voices heard is a cornerstone of the United States Constitution and culture, this freedom to vote continues to become less accessible to marginalized communities. According to the ACLU, “the fight for voting rights remains as critical as ever. Politicians across the country continue to engage in voter suppression, efforts that include additional obstacles to registration, cutbacks on early voting, and strict voter identification requirements (American Civil Liberties Union, 2023)”. These obstacles are written into law, continuing to impact those who are the most vulnerable. For example, in 2021, Georgia S.B. 202, made it a crime to distribute water or snacks to voters waiting in line, in addition to increased difficulty to vote by mail, which heavily impacts marginalized and low-income communities (American Civil Liberties Union, 2023). Mass incarceration impacts voting rights as well. According to The Sentencing Project, “Nationwide, as of 2020 one in every 16 Black adults could not vote as the result of a felony conviction, and in seven states more than one in seven Black adults was disenfranchised. Felony disenfranchisement laws remain a serious structural barrier to racial justice in this country.”
War on Drugs
June 17th, 2021 marked 50 years since President Nixon declared drugs to be “public enemy number one”. According to The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights,
“The War on Drugs has contributed to a systemically unequal prison system that continues to oppress Black and Brown people today. Indeed, the War on Drugs was never really a long-term policy goal: According to President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, the Nixon campaign did not intend the legislation to be about drug reform itself but was instead meant to oppress “the antiwar left and Black people.” This revealed the truth about the War on Drugs: It was essentially a war on the poor and other marginalized people. This brazenly racist and anti-democratic agenda has manifested itself into one of the most pernicious government-mandated operations of the 20th and 21st centuries (Pascual, 2021).”
Incarceration has been offered as a tool to reduce substance use that targets primarily Black American communities with Black people being 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their white counterparts, despite there being similar rates of substance use (Pascual, 2021). Substance use and race have been tied together with false narratives impacting communities of color, profiting from pain and trauma, instead of addressing root issues and listening to the asks of these communities.
Celebrating Juneteenth is complicated and while there is immense joy and honor for the progress we have fought for thus far, there is also anger, sadness, and disappointment. The institution of chattel slavery benefited the white and wealthy for a very long time, unchecked, and protected. It cannot be magically undone with a proclamation. It takes continued radical honesty, reflection, allyship, and a fight for racial justice.
"If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho’ we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- What We Mean by “Mass Incarceration” - Institute to End Mass Incarceration
- 5 Egregious Voter Suppression Laws from 2021 - Brennan Center for Justice
- America’s War on Drugs — 50 Years Later - The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
- Report: Aide says Nixon’s war on drugs targeted blacks, hippies - CNN Politics
- Voting Rights in the Era of Mass Incarceration: A Primer - The Sentencing Project (PDF)