The Michigan Juneteenth Controversy of 2015

One could convince most white Americans, without too much kicking and screaming, to admit that slavery constitutes a national embarrassment and we should all celebrate its end. But doing that often requires that we close the book and pretend that equality came completely and permanently in 1865. This contradicts the rest of the popular historical memory, which also assigns that date to 1776 and 1965 but these things rarely demand consistency. The perfection matters more than the date and infinitely more than the facts. We unite to celebrate the wonder of our triumph over division and injustice, not recognize its persistence and use past victories as inspiration for future efforts. If we really believed otherwise, we’d more eagerly celebrate Juneteenth. All the same, one imagines that something so innocuous as a resolution on the occasion should sail through any state legislature.

Michigan, my state, aims to disappoint.

The Juneteenth measure, which Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson of Highland Park had hoped would be adopted on June 19 — the holiday — was instead referred to a Senate committee Tuesday after behind-the-scenes wrangling.

[…]

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones, who is white, said unspecified GOP leaders asked him to change the “strange” and “quite shocking” resolution. The Grand Ledge Republican said parts of the measure are “sort of a political attack” instead of being celebratory in nature.

“When you do a resolution, this comes from all the senators, not just one. If he wants to make a tribute and have it just be from him, fine. But if it’s a resolution, it’s coming from all the senators,” Jones said. “It’s important that it be done appropriately.”

You can read the resolution here. The controversy arises over this passage:

After the emancipation from 246 years of slavery, Africans in American continue to experience the vestiges of slavery from challenges to voting rights, inadequate public education systems, lack of access to capital lending institutions, and other social and economic injustices; now, therefore, be it

Rick Jones informs us that the Republican leadership took this as a political attack. As the Republicans have a majority in the state Senate, their opinion generally prevails. Challenges to voting rights, poor schools, limited access to capital, and various other injustices disproportionately impact black Americans as much in Michigan as everywhere else in the nation. But to suggest that these flow from the original and greatest of injustices against them reaches out of bounds. It constitutes an attack. Such a resolution could not speak for the whole state Senate.

While slavery ended, de jure, in 1865 the injustices built into it did not all expire that year. For most of the subsequent century, save a promising decade or so, white Americans united to preserve most of them. We still do largely united around many of them, provided we can come up with a sufficiently colorblind pretense.

Confederate Battle FlagBut state Senators don’t always get the best history education. We can attribute the GOP leadership’s issue with the resolution to ignorance. If they genuinely don’t connect present injustices to past injustices from not knowing, fair enough. That would leave them with a distinct segment of the national population who do rather less well than the rest of us. Black Americans constitute far more of our poor, our unemployed, and our prison population than their numbers would account for. Looking at such a consistent pattern, one has only two explanations. Either America treats its black citizens disproportionately harshly and uncharitably or they have something conspicuously wrong with them. Otherwise, they would come out more or less the same as any other group of Americans.

Our white self-esteem suggests the latter option. Black Americans just gone wrong somehow. If they deserved equality or they would have it. We run a fair system here, dating all the way back to 1619. Nobody would enslave another unless they really had it coming. Our history, and an honest examination of the present, argue otherwise. White Americans have built and in many cases still build systems designed to use and exploit black Americans. If the GOP senators take that as a political attack, they ought to wonder why.

By denying that present injustices have their historical roots and implying them just rather than unjust, the Senate leadership have chosen to fly the same flag Bree Newsome took down last weekend whether they care to employ the colors visibly or not. That they did so in Michigan, rather than South Carolina, should remind us that systems of white supremacy only operated most notoriously in the South. Few white Americans, of any age or section, have cared to do much to disrupt them. Fewer still have cared to do so for those systems that benefit them personally. In this vein a past, Democratic state government convinced the Supreme Court to permit school segregation 1974, twenty years after Brown. It turns out that segregation meets constitutional muster provided one can erect a flimsy disguise around it.

I did not vote for Rick Jones or any other member of the GOP leadership, but the Michigan Senate speaks for all Michigan just as its resolutions speak for the whole Senate. I can only speak for myself, but I view the obstruction of the Juneteenth resolution as “quite shocking” and “sort of a political attack.” I cannot, however, say I view it as strange either in its content or in how it implicates me and millions of other Michigan residents. It speaks to one of the nation’s oldest political faiths and consequently seems to me, if not for the same reasons as it does to the Republicans, as entirely normal. I don’t know that we must uphold traditions, but it seems likely that we will choose to. In doing so, we say things about ourselves. We could choose to say better things and to undertake the obligations that they would entail. Or we can choose to keep flying a different flag.

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