A cynic — or simply a realist — would remind us that symbolic change is not the same as substantive improvement. Anti-racist reading lists haven’t stopped Black Americans from being killed by the police. Corporate diversity, equity and inclusion workshops haven’t closed the racial wealth gap.
The Senate may have voted in favor of recognizing Juneteenth, but the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is still withering away waiting for the Senate to act. The For the People Act and its voting rights protections are all but dead. And some of the same senators who voted in favor of a new Black holiday are sponsoring legislation that would ban the teaching of our country’s racist history.
A new holiday won’t fix the material injustices that continue to fall most heavily on Black America: poverty, state violence, incarceration, environmental hazards, poor access to health care, a legacy of financial discrimination and limitations on political power. In fact, symbolic wins more often serve to let their champions off the hook. “Your national greatness, swelling vanity; … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery,” Douglass said.
But symbols accomplish something, too.
The debates over statues, the fury over the New York Times’s 1619 Project, the Republican horror at the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools should be signs that even the symbolic holds some value. If these smaller declarations didn’t have power, would they be seen as such a threat?