Juneteenth is Finally a Federal Holiday

Congress usually doesn’t do bipartisan legislation. Even someone who passively follows politics knows that. But when it came to making Juneteenth a federal holiday, both sides acted quickly.

The Senate passed a bill establishing the holiday before the House passed it last evening. Only a few Republican representatives voted against it, citing it as another Democratic attempt to push identity politics on Americans. Dumb rationales don’t matter now, though. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, the most prominent Republican opposing the bill’s passage, backed down Tuesday, which allowed the bill to unanimously pass the Senate. Both houses of Congress worked quickly, surprising many of its own members according to the Washington Post. Pending a signature from President Joe Biden, this Saturday will be the first federally recognized Juneteenth.

What exactly does federal holiday status mean? In short, that the federal government observes it writ large. Non-essential government offices are closed and employees receive paid leave. Juneteenth would be the 11th federal holiday and the first addition since Martin Luther King Jr. Day’s addition in 1983.

Like MLK Day, Juneteenth’s recognition is decades in the making. Activists groups have been pushing for federal and state recognition for years. But where MLK Day’s implementation faced staggering opposition—including federally elected officials referring to it as “Marxism” and “filth”—Juneteenth’s has been comparatively quick.

Calls for Juneteenth recognition grew louder last year during mass protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. States and cities began heeding the message. In 2020, New York City made it an official city and school holiday. Governors of New York, New Jersey, and Virginia signed executive orders that made Juneteenth a day of paid leave for state employees in 2020.  This year, Oregon’s governor did the same. Those states joined Texas as the only states in the union to officially recognized Juneteenth as a statewide holiday.

It’s not clear how other states will observe Juneteenth once Biden officially makes it a federal holiday. But since it passed through Congress so overwhelmingly, it’s hard to imagine any ignoring it. That’s precisely what happened with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the early 1980s, though—several states held out by mashing it together with other holidays. Others simply refused to observe it in its early years. Most states already observe or acknowledge Juneteenth in some form or another, even if it wasn’t an official holiday. Federal holiday status only increases the likelihood every state will observe it officially this time around.

Juneteenth’s newfound status is significant in many ways. It’s an acknowledgement and celebration of a history so many Americans never acknowledged or learned about. But its elevation to federal holiday rings a bit hollow at this particular moment in time. Republicans have trained their culture war guns on critical race theory, “an academic framework centered on the idea that racism is systemic.” GOP-led statehouses across the country have passed or are planning to pass bills banning critical race theory from being taught in their schools … even though it already isn’t taught in their schools.

Making Juneteenth a federal holiday as Republicans across the country work to make it illegal to teach students why it’s a holiday is more than a gross bit of irony. It’s downright ludicrous. Juneteenth is inextricable from systemic racism. Systemic racism is the reason Juneteenth exists. It accounted for the countless atrocities that preceded it and the countless atrocities that came after. Systemic racism is precisely why Juneteenth was ignored as a holiday for generations and why so much of American history related to slavery and Black liberation is swept under the rug. A swift bipartisan effort to make it a federal holiday as many of the same lawmakers full-throatedly attack critical race theory, decry defunding police, and eschew the very existence of systemic racism greatly blunts its impact. It’s hard to blame anyone for thinking this is purely a stunt.

Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock said he hopes lawmakers “would not cash in substantive change for an opportunity to commemorate” Juneteenth. He and other Democrats emphasized the necessity for more work and change on a variety of racial issues in America. Creating a new federal holiday is ideally the beginning of that work, not the end of it. But Johnson, the loudest Republican holdout, is still thinking about it in terms of productivity. “It’s still bizarre to me that’s the way we celebrate a holiday” Johnson told WaPo. “You give 2 million Americans a day off to the tune of $600 million.”

Johnson’s attitude is the kind standing in the way of substantive change. It’s also the kind that has many rightfully worried Juneteenth will eventually morph into yet another commercialized American holiday centered around furniture sales and consumption than actual remembrance or observation. We’ll have to wait and see how many new sales there are this time next year.