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Juneteenth is on its way to becoming a federal holiday. Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Juneteenth on its way to becoming a federal holiday: Long overdue, performative, or both?

The Senate unanimously passed legislation that would recognize the day slavery officially ended as a federal holiday. Now it heads to the House.

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This weekend is the annual celebration of Juneteenth, the day that slavery officially ended in the United States.

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce to still-enslaved Africans that they were free, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia observe the date in some way. Texas was the first to officially recognize it as a state holiday in 1980. 

Despite the growing calls for the date to become a federal holiday, it hasn’t happened yet. 

On Tuesday, June 16, the Senate passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act to finally commemorate the date as a paid national holiday. 

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey introduced it last June, following the massive protests for racial equality sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, but the bill did not progress to a vote. 

Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson blocked the bill in 2020, claiming the day off for federal employees would cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. 

However, Johnson dropped his objections this week, paving the way for the bill’s passage in the Senate.

“While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter. Therefore, I do not intend to object,” Johnson said in a statement before the  vote on June 16.

The Senate passed the bill under a unanimous consent agreement that accelerates the process for considering legislation. To block such agreements, only one senator would have to object. 

The bill has 60 co-sponsors including Reps. Grace Meng, Joyce Beatty, Tony Cárdenas. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer applauded the bill’s passage, stating the importance of addressing the wrongs of the past, but pointed out that more work needed to be done to ensure equality, justice and true freedom.

“We must continue to work to ensure equal justice and fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and our Constitution,” said Schumer. 

Markey agreed with Schumer, saying the U.S. has "failed to acknowledge, address, and come to grips with our nation’s original sin of slavery."

"Today’s Senate passage of our legislation to commemorate Juneteenth as a federal holiday will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants, and finally celebrate their freedom," he said in a statement. 

The bill would make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday. It is expected to easily pass the House, which would send it to President Joe Biden for his signature. 

Under the legislation, the federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

The Juneteenth bill comes as Congress grapples with legislation to protect the right to vote for marginalized groups, while trying to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to enhance law enforcement accountability. 

At the same time, some state legislatures are attempting to ban critical race theory in public school classrooms, leading some citizens to believe that the Juneteenth bill is merely performative. 

Some Black Americans took to social media to express their thoughts on the bill. 

One user said that the bill exemplified the tired political tradition of performative legislation intended to quiet down the calls for real systemic change. 

Author and screenwriter Candice Marie Benbow pointed out that Black people have been asking for voting rights protections, defunded police departments with resources reallocated to community services like education and job training, but Congress essentially ignored all of these requests.

“What did White folks do instead? Gave themselves a day off work,” Benbow tweeted. 

Emmy-nominated SNY anchor Chris Williamson, tweeted that Black people simply wanted protection against police brutality and wrongful deaths, and the government responded by making Juneteenth a federal holiday. 

While the federal recognition of Juneteenth is important and overdue, it feels performative to many Black Americans, considering all of the injustices that remain unaddressed. 

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