Juneteenth Offers an Opportunity to Reflect on Past Injustices—and the Need to Continue Addressing Them Today

Noella Byenkya Former Communications Intern // Karina Schroeder Former Communications Manager // Celine Nehme Former Development Associate
Jun 20, 2019

Yesterday, many Americans celebrated the holiday known as Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Africans and Black Americans on June 19th, 1865, when news of emancipation reached Texas, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth is certainly a cause for celebration. However, it should also prompt reflection about how far America has come, as emancipation was followed by continued oppression through the Jim Crow era, white supremacy and violence, and mass incarceration.

Our nation’s legacy of racism and white supremacy lives on in many ways, including in our modern criminal justice system. African Americans make up just 13 percent of the country’s population, but they represent more than 35 percent of those in American prisons. In fact, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, except for those who are found to be a ‘criminal’ under the law. This dangerous loophole has helped to pave the way to our current era of mass incarceration and the systematic oppression of Black people through over-criminalization.

Today, discrimination continues through racial disparities in the enforcement of seemingly race-neutral laws. For example:

  • While rates of drug use are similar across racial and ethnic groups, Black people are arrested and sentenced on drug charges at much higher rates than white people are.
  • Studies have found that Black people are more likely to be stopped by the police, detained pretrial, charged with more serious crimes, and sentenced more harshly than white people are.
  • Living in poor communities exposes people to risk factors for both offending and arrest, and a history of structural racism and inequality of opportunity means that Black people are more likely to be living in such conditions of concentrated poverty.

Additionally, the burden of bail falls disproportionately on Black people, hundreds of thousands of whom are held in pretrial detention: they are accused, but not convicted, of a crime, and are jailed only because they can’t pay bail.

This Juneteenth and beyond, we must confront our history of racism and contemplate the ways in which the American criminal justice system mimics past systems of oppression. Vera’s Reimagining Prison report calls for a radical shift in our current system from one that promotes retribution and punishment to one that promotes healing and human dignity.

While there is progress to celebrate, there is still much work to do. We hope that the celebration of Juneteenth and public awareness of historic injustices—as well as the relationship of past racism to our current state—continues moving us toward effective change. At Vera, we acknowledge that true criminal justice reform can only go hand-in-hand with the advancement of racial equity, and we remain committed to this work.