Why Juneteenth matters everywhere in the world

A Juneteenth celebration in Texas, 19 June 1900.

A Juneteenth celebration in Texas, 19 June 1900. Image: Mrs. Charles Stephenson (Grace Murray), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
Andrew Berkley
Lead, Immersive Technology and Content, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • 19 June commemorates the end of slavery in the US and is a federal holiday.
  • The day marks an opportunity to reflect on ways to combat racism in every country.

To some, it might seem like a relatively obscure Americanism. Even in America, it was only made a federal holiday a year ago.

But Juneteenth, celebrated on 19 June, presents an opportunity to take stock of the systemic racism and intolerance that have long cut across international borders.

The specific event commemorated by the holiday foreshadowed the disappointing and disjointed healing process to follow. On 19 June 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, Black people in Galveston, Texas were belatedly informed of their freedom by soldiers reading from a general order as they marched through town.

In a sign of things to come, that order admonished freed slaves to “remain quietly” at home – presumably a slave plantation where they’d been delivered as property – and warned that they would “not be supported in idleness.” The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the US, was ratified a few months later – though 19 June has come to be recognized as the day marking the end of perhaps the bleakest chapter in the country’s history.

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Juneteenth was celebrated within Texas as early as 1867, and by the 20th-century celebrations had become prominent in neighbouring states. It became a state holiday in Texas in 1979. The push for federal holiday status gained momentum amid a racial reckoning that began in 2020. Ultimately, the lone senator blocking passage realized it was not a fight that would win him allies.

The enshrining of 19 June as a federal holiday came amid renewed efforts to restrict voting rights for people of color, and to gloss over systemic racism in school curricula. However, some progress has been made on seeking reparations for slavery and the abuse that extended long past 19 June 1865.

Below is an excerpt from a visualization of the accumulated lynchings of Black people in the Southern US between 1882 and 1930 on a monthly basis. These public executions followed accusations of wrongdoing but no due process; they served to inflict terror and exercise control.

Image: World Economic Forum

In 2020, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for “concrete action” for the elimination of racial discrimination and xenophobia. It cited an alarming rise in hate speech and incitement to violence.

Unsettling developments have served as reminders that racism is a widely-shared problem. An increase in anti-Asian racist violence during the pandemic, for example, has been fueled in some instances by leaders looking to assign blame.

In Europe, an “alarming spike” in Islamophobia has been observed amid a normalization of extreme right-wing rhetoric, and people of color continue to deal with systemic racism.

According to government statistics in the UK, for example, just 2% of white British households are overcrowded, compared with 24% of Bangladeshi and 16% of Black African households; statistics have also registered a 68% home-ownership rate for white British households, compared with 20% for Black African households.

The long reach of racism

Racism can also creep into popular culture and sport; ugly incidents have marred high-profile soccer matches including a Europa League qualifier in 2021 between Czech and Scottish sides.

Popular culture in China has also played on racist imagery. One infamous advertisement for laundry detergent showed a woman “washing” her Black boyfriend by turning him into a fair-skinned Chinese man.

Australia, too, has been home to embarrassing episodes including recurring reports of people and performers wearing blackface.

Ultimately, confronting our worst instincts is necessary to learn from our past and do better. Below is another visualization excerpt of lynchings in the US from 1882 to 1930 – non-Black Americans (represented by non-red dots) were also victims, though this type of vigilante justice was clearly disproportionately meted out to people of color.

Image: World Economic Forum

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • One idea for a good way to celebrate Juneteenth in the US, according to this piece: elect more officials willing to end the racist practice of mass incarceration. (Brookings)
  • The author of this piece recommends reading one passage in particular from Ralph Ellison’s posthumously-published novel “Juneteenth." (New Yorker)
  • Science must overcome its racist legacy – the authors of this piece want to help decolonize research and forge a path towards restorative justice and reconciliation. (Nature)
  • Asia has its own strands of racism, according to this piece, and it’s time to take them seriously. (The Diplomat)
  • Black and white soccer players can be discussed in troublingly different ways by the media. As a UK-based author of a related study details here, Black players are overwhelmingly praised for physical prowess, and white players for intelligence and character. (The Conversation)
  • Juneteenth as a rallying cry for reparations – according to this analysis, bondage didn’t disappear for Black Americans with the end of slavery and was instead repackaged in ways that call for a financial reckoning. (Brookings)
  • What we cannot not know in America – the 400 Years of Inequality Project was created to call organizations to observe the 400th anniversary of the first Africans landing in Jamestown in 1619. (Frontiers)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Systemic Racism, Human Rights and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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