In summary

Recognizing Juneteenth helps Americans acknowledge our nation’s racist past.

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By Nicole Taylor, Special to CalMatters

Nicole Taylor is president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation,

Santa Clara County is making history today as it becomes the first county in California to recognize Juneteenth with a paid day off for county employees. California should follow Santa Clara County’s lead — and that of the federal government — by making June 19 a paid holiday for state employees. 

This week, in an unusual and, to be frank, surprising show of bipartisanship in Congress, lawmakers swiftly created the nation’s 12th federal holiday — Juneteenth National Independence Day — to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. President Biden signed it into law and made today a paid day off for federal employees. Banks and other private businesses that haven’t already made it a paid holiday for their employees are likely to follow suit.

It is remarkable and gratifying that our leaders were able to unite on something so important when our nation is so divided.

Observance of this holiday will help us collectively reckon with our racist past and help place equity at the center of our efforts to build a brighter future for everyone.

Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is one of the most powerful tools we have to raise awareness, because it demonstrates a welcome and overdue commitment to remembering, honoring and understanding what the day represents.

Juneteenth recalls June 19, 1865, the day the news of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation nearly two and a half years earlier reached Texas — the last recalcitrant corner of the country. In recent years, Juneteenth has gained prominence, with 48 states and the District of Columbia observing it as either a ceremonial or a state (when state offices and schools are closed) holiday. 

This growing awareness gives me hope, as it is critical that we recognize that Black history is American history and that its connection to modern-day issues — such as police brutality and economic inequality — render Black liberation elusive. 

“As much as we invest in the Fourth of July, it must be that and more for Juneteenth,” said Milan Balinton, executive director of the San Jose-based African American Community Service Agency, which helped advocate for making Juneteenth a paid holiday in Santa Clara County. “In 1776, my people were enslaved and we were not celebrating freedom. The celebration of America’s founding is part of our history, but other parts often aren’t told.” 

Ensuring that we talk about all of our nation’s history — the good and the bad — speaks truth to power, and in turn, builds power for those who historically haven’t had it. This will move us toward a more equitable society.

Too often, the power to determine a community’s future is held by a small and unrepresentative group of people. To advance equitable policies that will drive systemic change, we must ensure that those who historically haven’t had power get a measure of it. Movements such as the California Black Freedom Fund, which directly supports Black-led power-building organizations across the state, do this. Recognizing the injustices of our history adds to that effort.

As a Black mother to a young Black man in America, I feel deeply the fear that racism creates. As a leader in Silicon Valley, I have seen our communities face indescribable pain in the pandemic year and am acutely aware of the racial and social injustices that make life disproportionately harder for some. And, as a Black woman leading a prominent philanthropic organization, I feel the weight of both my privilege and my responsibility to ensure that all communities are seen, heard and valued. 

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This Juneteenth, I’m hopeful that we are seeing a more just future unfold, and that everyone takes this new holiday as an opportunity to see, hear and value others — ensuring that we place equity at the center of our hopes for our country’s future.

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