US companies’ endorsement of Juneteenth holiday rings hollow for many

As a diversity consultant, Dee Marshall teaches Wall Street how to become more welcoming workplaces for people of color. You’d think she’d be thrilled when her clients called for help planning the June 17 celebration.

Not so much, it turns out.

“Black people aren’t excited about this,” said Marshall, managing director of the Diverse & Engaged consulting group.

After the murder by police of George Floyd last year sparked mass protests and sparked racial reckoning in the United States, American businesses have embraced Juneteenth as a way to honor black Americans and demonstrate their commitment to diverse workplaces and inclusive.

A portmanteau of the June 19 date, Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 that Union Army General Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas to free the last enslaved black Americans – months after the Confederate surrender during the Civil War and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln officially declared the end of slavery.

While some black Americans appreciate the belated recognition of Juneteenth by American companies by making it a paid holiday, others, like Marshall, complain that it looks like an empty gesture – especially when many companies haven’t. still kept promises of diversity made at the height of Floyd’s protests. .

People carry a Juneteenth sign during a protest in Brooklyn, New York on June 19, 2020 © John Minchillo / AP

“What is most meaningful to the people that this aims to honor? I don’t think they’re going to be super excited that a Juneteenth event is going on. They are going to be excited when there is a real change in the organization, ”said Marshall.

Regardless, Juneteenth is now the cornerstone of the racial justice efforts of many companies, Lyft, Colgate and BP, among others, touting their adoption of the holiday in social impact and diversity reports.

About 9 percent of businesses will be pulling Juneteenth this year, according to a survey by employer consulting firm Mercer, compared to 55 percent for Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Thursday, President Joe Biden signed an invoice establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, the 11th in the country.

The campaign to establish MLK Day began shortly after the assassination of the civil rights leader in 1968 and was finally proclaimed in 1983.

The debate over federal holiday status for Juneteenth has taken place as the United States questions how to remember its history of institutionalized racism. Republicans in 20 states have introduced legislation to limit the use of critical race theory in public schools, an academic strategy used to examine institutions from a race perspective. Conservatives fear that discussion of the legacy of discriminatory US policies will fuel anti-American sentiments.

“Even today, as conservatives attempt to erase history with their attacks on critical race theory and understanding the impacts of systemic racism, we are here to recognize the truth,” wrote Ed Markey, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, on Twitter earlier this week. “We will make #Juneteenth a federal holiday. “

Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, observed that although black Americans in the southern and southwestern states mark the holiday with family reunions, barbecues and parties neighborhood, he “had never had national followers” before. Floyd’s murder at the end of May 2020.

Residents of Leesburg, Va. Are rallying against teaching critical race theory to schools © Andrew Caballero / AFP via Getty Images

“For many companies, this was a fruit within reach,” Neal said of the rise of Juneteenth by companies. The date came last year amid the Black Lives Matter protests and just like many companies made a push to publicly tackle racism for the first time.

“If Juneteenth was in October, that wouldn’t happen,” Marshall said.

Several of the companies that were among the first to designate Juneteenth as a holiday by offering a day off or volunteering overtime, including Nike, Square and Mastercard, said they plan to do the same this year.

But overall, the commemorations are noticeably more subdued. General Motors, which last year staged a nine-minute work stoppage – the length of time former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck – to honor Floyd on June 10 of the year last, said her plans this year included “volunteerism and community involvement.”

Opponents of the party cited the financial cost of the missed work. Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin who blocked Juneteenth’s legislation last year estimated the cost at $ 600 million per year for federal employees alone. The United States Office of Personnel Management said most federal employees will take the new June 17 public holiday off because June 19 falls on Saturday.

Dakasha Winton, a black executive who is responsible for government relations at insurer BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said the educational focus of many of Juneteenth’s corporate celebrations was worth it.

“Even if it’s the first time you’re doing something, at least you’re taking action to do something, and that’s the key,” Winton said.

New York-based public relations group RF Binder’s diversity task force voted to add Juneteenth to its paid vacation list and eliminate another honoring 15th-century Italian explorer Christopher Columbus to make room for him.

“Ditching Columbus Day for Juneteenth, there is something very significant about it,” said CEO Amy Binder. “Columbus Day celebrates the western world invading a country and taking it from Native Americans, and that might not be such a great concept.”

For Marshall, recognition of Juneteenth only makes sense to black employees when they are part of a cohesive plan for diversity, equity and inclusion.

“This day doesn’t just celebrate the past,” Biden said shortly before proclaiming the holiday. “This calls for action today.”

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