by Kevin Coupe
From the website of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture:
"Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as 'Juneteenth,' by the newly freed people in Texas."
The site goes on:
"Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day. Although it has long celebrated in the African American community, this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans.
"The historical legacy of Juneteenth shows the value of never giving up hope in uncertain times."
That historical legacy now is being seen in the context of the racial strife and civil unrest taking place in the United States, sparked by the deaths of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks, and questions that are being raised about systemic racism and the criminal justice system.
The Wall Street Journal reported the other day that "Texas became the first state, in 1980, to declare Juneteenth as a holiday. Forty-seven of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia acknowledge or observe Juneteenth as a holiday … Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota haven’t formally approved Juneteenth as a state holiday."
The spotlight that has been trained on systemic racism has brought with it attempts by various companies to acknowledge the importance of Juneteenth.
For example, Target announced that it is making Juneteenth an annual company holiday, paying store employees time-and-a-half if they work on that date, and pledging to donate $10 million toward social justice and rebuilding efforts in its Minneapolis home market, which has been at the center of many of the protests.
The Journal writes that "Twitter Inc., Square Inc. and Nike are among companies that said Juneteenth would be a paid day off for employees, while others have canceled corporate meetings that day or encouraged employees to engage in education or community work."
New Balance sent an email to employees and customers this week, saying that "In support of the Black community and to further the important dialogue about racial inequality and social injustice, New Balance will close our operations in the United States, including the retail stores we own and operate, to recognize Juneteenth on Friday, June 19th, 2020, as the emancipation from slavery of African Americans in this country in 1865.
"We recognize the significance of this milestone in the fabric of our history and stand alongside all of those advocating for equality and against racism. We believe this is an important time to acknowledge and educate ourselves on the history, experiences, sacrifices and achievements of African Americans and reflect with family and friends on how we can work to shape meaningful change for an equal and inclusive path forward."
CNBC has an accounting of some of the companies observing Juneteenth and how they are doing so.
"Allstate has announced that Juneteenth from now on will be regarded 'as an annual company holiday to provide Allstaters the opportunity to reflect on this monumental event and engage in their communities' … Altria announced that this upcoming Juneteenth would be regarded as a 'Day of Healing' for its employees. It’ll be a paid, companywide holiday, the release added, 'to allow employees time for personal reflection and healing' … Best Buy announced it will offer employees a 'paid volunteer day' this Juneteenth, adding that it will be recognized as a companywide holiday starting next year … General Motors announced plans to hold moments of silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on Friday, the same amount of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on Floyd’s neck … In a memo circulated to staff, Google, a unit of Alphabet, urged its employees to cancel all unnecessary meetings scheduled for this Friday, Juneteenth. 'We encourage all Googlers to use this day to create space for learning and reflection, so please don’t schedule any unnecessary meetings,' the memo said. 'Now, more than ever, it’s important for us to find moments of connection as a community' … National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell said Juneteenth will be recognized as a league holiday and ordered the closing of the NFL office … Spotify, a music-streaming service, announced that Juneteenth would be a paid holiday for all employees."
CNBC also reports that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is encouraging employees to cancel all meetings today and take advantage of a “range of online learning opportunities” provided by the company. He wrote in a memo:
Over the past few weeks, the Steam and I have spent a lot of time listening to customers and employees and thinking about how recent events in our country have laid bare the systemic racism and injustices that oppress Black individuals and communities.
This Friday, June 19, is Juneteenth, the oldest-known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. I’m cancelling all of my meetings on Friday, and I encourage all of you to do the same if you can. We’re providing a range of online learning opportunities for employees throughout the day.
Please take some time to reflect, learn, and support each other. Slavery ended a long time ago, but racism didn’t.
The Juneteenth observance also is bringing attention to companies' efforts to make their workforces more diverse.
Take, for example, this piece from Bloomberg:
"As civil unrest over systemic racism roils the U.S., Walmart Inc.’s chief executive officer has pledged to make changes giving the company’s 340,000 Black workers more opportunities.
"According to the company’s latest diversity report, they need them.
"The share of senior Black executives at the world’s largest retailer has declined since 2015, while the share of Black mid-level managers has stagnated, the report shows. The information is only updated through 2018, so does not account for recent promotions and departures, and the company says the numbers have improved since then."
The story points out that "it takes a lot to move the needle inside Walmart’s 1.5 million-person U.S. workforce, which is 21% Black overall. Walmart has appointed Black executives to some high-profile roles in recent months, such as Dacona Smith, who is now chief operating officer in the U.S., Latriece Watkins, an executive vice president running the U.S. consumables division, and Kelvin Buncum, who runs the retailer’s Neighborhood Markets division. Smith and Watkins started their careers at Walmart." The Bloomberg story points out that Walmart hardly is alone in needing to become more diverse, and "Walmart’s leadership ranks are more diverse than the overall retail industry, according to composite figures provided for comparison in Walmart’s diversity report."
Walmart also has pledged $100 million to address the issue, which the story says "suggests that the world’s largest retailer wants to set the pace on reducing racial inequalities, rather than just muddle along."
We've had stories this week about how PepsiCo is retiring the Aunt Jemima brand because of the built-in racism of the name and image, and that brands such as Cream of Wheat, Uncle Ben's and Mrs. Butterworth's also are reconsidering the images they have long used in their brand identities. (I would suggest that it is way past time for them to end the use of offensive and stereotypical names and images, and that they should simply get it done. Dithering at this point in time is unacceptable.)
I must admit that I was a little startled this morning to read a BBC story about how "Colgate-Palmolive is reviewing Chinese toothpaste brand Darlie as firms reassess race stereotypes in products."
The name "Darlie," apparently, translates to "black person's toothpaste," and the brand "features a caricature of a man with blackface make-up."
As offensive as all that it is - and it is profoundly offensive - it was even more starting to read the Colgate-Palmolive statement saying that "for more than 35 years, we have been working together to evolve the brand, including substantial changes to the name, logo and packaging. We are currently working with our partner to review and further evolve all aspects of the brand, including the brand name."
This 35-year evolution has included the decision - in 1989! - to change the name of the brand to "Darlie" from "Darkie."
I'm sure that someone will say that this is Asia, not the US, and that things are different there. Which I think is a crock - basic decency and sensitivity and respect for human rights and dignity ought not pay attention to boundaries.
There is so much work to be done to address issues that are deeply pervasive.
In The New Yorker today, Jelani Cobb has an excellent piece in which he observes that "Juneteenth exists as a counterpoint to the Fourth of July; the latter heralds the arrival of American ideals, the former stresses just how hard it has been to live up to them." And he writes that "there's a paradox inherent in the fact that emancipation is celebrated primarily among African-Americans, and that the celebration is rooted in a perception of slavery as something that happened to black people, rather than something that the country committed. The paradox rests on the presumption that the arrival of freedom should be greeted with gratitude, instead of with self-reflection about what allowed it to be deprived in the first place. Emancipation is a marker of progress for white Americans, not black ones."
I got the following email from an MNB reader yesterday:
So does this mean Chef Boyardee and Lucky Charms are going to be removed next for stereotyping Italians and Irish. Should Colonel Sanders of KFC be removed next for stereotyping the Southern gentleman? Should Irish, Italians and Southerners petition those companies to remove those characters because it makes them feel “uncomfortable” and because such characters promote stereotyping?
I do not think these characters will be removed simply because we as a society have not been conditioned to attach any negativity to these characters. This is fortunate for those companies that own these characters as it prevents them the unnecessary hassle and cost of rebranding their products.
It is also interesting to point out that the same movements that want more inclusivity of people of color are actually removing imagery of people of color from the consciousness of the wider public. What is even more interesting is that, as far as I know, they have not proposed any alternative character of a person of color to replace the ones that are going to be removed. Because of this, we will have more brand characters that are white instead of people of color in the wider market. This of course will fuel more demands of inclusivity. I guess the cycle will never end.
First of all, let me be clear. As an Irish-American, I'd be happy to start a petition to get rid of that stupid leprechaun.
This reader does make one accurate point - that the characters are not seen by people as being negative. But it ignores the fact that the portrayals of black people by some brands are deeply rooted in how their entire race was sublimated and enslaved by our culture, and that the results of this "American original sin" infect our society to this day. And the comments about what images will replace the ones that are removed just strike me as entirely tone-deaf.
I got another email this week from an MNB reader who wrote:
As a black professional in the supermarket industry, it has been very hard to tolerate the discrimination I have received over the past 40 years. It has also been difficult to read some of the responses you have received from some industry leaders. I just wanted to thank you for your comments regarding the Aunt Jemima branding issue. I truly appreciate you being an advocate for, and understanding the need to, recognize and eliminate the systemic racism realities of our industry and our country.
I'm going to be honest here. I didn't know much about Juneteenth until recently. I was only sort of vaguely aware of its meaning and history. So shame on me.
I've known this reader for a long time. To be honest, I had no idea about the discrimination and intolerance that this reader has encountered. I should've known. I just never thought about it. I never even asked. Again, shame on me.
But this, I think, has to be about learning. About trying to understand the ways in which we as a culture come up short, and trying to do better. About how I as an individual can do better. About knowing that when we talk about being the "land of the free," it doesn't really mean much unless we all are free - and that means not being judged by the color of our skin but rather by the goodness of our hearts.
A quick postscript…
As I was about to post MNB this morning, I saw a 93-year-old black woman, who clearly was around in the sixties for that civil rights movement, interviewed on the news, and she was asked if she ever gets tired of having to push and fight for her rights as an American.
"No!" she said. "Gee whiz, no. I'm not one of those people who is sitting in a rocking chair thinking that the Lord is going to come get me. He's gonna have to catch me."
From her lips.