Howard professor: Congress could make Juneteenth holiday more than symbolic

Ravi Perry is the chair of the political science department at Howard University. (Courtesy Howard University)

An activist at Howard University in D.C. hopes that the recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday will require all people to recognize that the U.S. wrongfully enslaved people of African descent and prospered under the chattel-based system of slavery.

Congress approved a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday Wednesday following a 415-14 vote by the House. President Joe Biden is expected to sign it.

Ravi Perry, chair of the political science department at Howard University, is not sure that the recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a “moment of celebration.”

“The holiday is certainly something to acknowledge; it’s not an insignificant step,” Perry said. “But it is important, I think, to recognize that not one Black person asked for a Juneteenth holiday.”

Juneteenth marks the date — June 19, 1865 — when all enslaved Black people in the U.S. learned they were free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

What people have requested of their government, Perry said, is that people of African descent be treated with equal protection under the law, as prescribed by the 14th Amendment.

“We have been struggling to apply the ideals of our democratic founding of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to everybody,” Perry said.

Perry is an activist scholar specializing in Black politics, minority representation, LGBT politics, civil rights, social movements and urban politics.

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He notes that some people who support the Juneteenth holiday also are against what’s being called critical race theory and ethnic studies in public education.

“To ensure that people in our schools learn the history of Juneteenth and the people who, of course, have been impacted via generations because of America’s original sin of slavery,” Perry said.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines critical race theory as an “intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour.”

Perry said he finds it ironic that the Senate unanimously passed a federal holiday no Black organizations requested, while so many senators do not support statehood for D.C. or what he calls the John Lewis Act or the For The People Act.

“If Juneteenth were a legitimately commemorated day to reflect on our country’s horrific slavery past, then we would see evidence in the behavior of legislators’ actions in Congress that support the naming of a symbolic federal holiday,” Perry said.

He said the new federal holiday carries no substantive redress of wrongs for the millions of people it will now commemorate.

“We still have a Columbus Day holiday on the calendar, and Columbus was a fraud who did not discover America at all,” Perry said, while noting that some states and persons of Indigenous descent have created opportunities for that day, instead, to honor Native Americans.

“And that holiday hasn’t necessarily changed people’s attitudes about what they believe about the founding of the country,” Perry said.

As a paid federal holiday, federal workers will get the day off on June 19, or the nearest Friday or Monday.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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