Tom Hastings: A new national holiday isn't the answer, but it's a tiny step forward

After decades of educating us about the horrific history of Texas slaveowners refusing to let their illegally kept African-descended humans know that they were actually free, then-89-year-old African American activist Opal Lee began her historic 1,400-mile walk from her Texas home to Washington, D.C., in 2016.

All she wanted was then-President Barack Obama to declare Juneteenth a national holiday, in order to mark the end of arguably the worst institution the US has ever permitted, enslavement of other humans.

Opal Lee survived an attempt to kill her and her family on Juneteenth, 1939, in Texas. She is unstoppable, and she has won. 

I’d like to see all the instances of schools or roads or bridges or anything named for Robert E. Lee changed to honor Opal Lee — or Barbara Lee, the African American Congresswomen from California who alone voted against the blank check granted by Congress to George W. Bush and all subsequent presidents to make war as they saw fit. 

Indeed, let’s find true justice warriors like Opal or Barbara to honor with school names so that none of the estimated 240 schools named for Confederate generals retain ignominious and traitorous names any longer. 

Is Juneteenth the national holiday going to fix the disparate outcomes for black people in education, health, income, wealth, home ownership, imprisonment, unemployment, police mistreatment and other inequities? Obviously not. 

But when we as a nation can join in honoring those who have suffered through no fault of their own, because America has a ghastly history of land theft from Native Americans and enslavement of Africans and African descendants, we come a baby step closer.

As we try to leave COVID’s horrors behind, let us vow not to go back to normal. Let’s “build better,” in every structural sense.

A radical reduction in racism will lead naturally to a radical reduction in racial tension. 

That would be good for me, and I’m a white man. It would also be good for you, whether you are a white man, woman or child, Black man, woman or child, or someone fitting into a different niche. When societal conflict over race is reduced, there is no American not reaping the benefits.

This is called enlightened self-interest. Ending racism at the structural level is indeed in the enlightened self-interest of every single one of us.

Juneteenth provides us with a welcome annual opportunity to appreciate history, justice and  love for each other, along with a spirit of unity where there has been excruciating division. That, and another opportunity to “teach our children well.”

Tom Hastings serves as coordinator of the conflict resolution program at Portland State University, as well as director of the national PeaceVoice organziation, which distributes his column.

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