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Juneteenth is an opportunity for America to reckon with its racial wealth gap

If businesses are going to celebrate Juneteenth, we need to talk openly about the persistent massive wealth gap between Black and white Americans.
Photo illustration: Pieces of a torn note fall over a raised fist which has another piece of the torn note.
Corporate interest in Juneteenth has significantly grown over the past year.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Juneteenth, which Black Americans have been celebrating since 1866, commemorates the end of legalized slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, and grew into a broader celebration honored by Black communities throughout the country.

Juneteenth is a pivotal moment to reckon with how race has shaped economic inequality.

Over the past year, public interest in Juneteenth has significantly grown and many large companies have begun to provide employees with a paid day off (or reduced workload) to coincide with the holiday.

In a statement from JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, the company’s CEO, justified the decision to close all Chase branches early on June 19 as an effort to demonstrate “deep respect for the suffering that the Black community has endured over hundreds of years.” In a Twitter statement, Lyft explained the company’s decision to start an annual celebration on Juneteenth as “one step in our ongoing journey toward racial equality at Lyft, and in this country.”

Meanwhile, a Juneteenth marketing campaign was scrapped by Old Navy after criticism from Black influencers. It likely won’t be the last time brands stumble while trying to commemorate — and perhaps commercialize — the holiday. As we’ve seen with other celebrations of marginalized groups, notably Black History Month or Pride Month, many companies will tweet promotional slogans, introduce new merchandise and pay lip service to diversity and inclusion. Much harder is doing the real work of equity: advocating for progressive policies, lobbying lawmakers, and implementing inclusive practices that expand opportunities for all.

This is not to say that the growing interest in Juneteenth and its recognition as a national holiday lack merit. They are, in large part, a response to the uprisings that have taken place over the last year following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

But the efforts thus far barely scratch the surface when it comes to the larger issues facing Black Americans. The growing impulse among business owners to commemorate Juneteenth represents a symbolic gesture — with some financial commitment from those employers that offer paid days off. Yet companies can make a far more meaningful commitment to racial equality by taking steps to address the massive wealth gap between Black and white Americans.

The average Black family’s wealth in the United States today is only one-tenth of that of a white family.

The facts are startling: The average Black family’s wealth in the United States today is only one-tenth of that of a white family. Very little has changed in recent years. A 2018 report by economists Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick, and Ulrike I. Steins concluded that “no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years.”

This racial wealth gap is directly tied to the history of enslavement. By 1860, the enslaved population of the United States was worth an estimated $3.5 billion. According to historian David Blight, enslaved people represented “the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” The four million Black people who were enslaved by the start of the Civil War played no small part in building the nation’s wealth.

The profits from the production of cotton in the South made the United States one of the leading world economies before the Civil War. The lower Mississippi Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region of the country during this period. As white slaveholders lined their pockets for generations, enslaved Black people were brutally exploited and stripped of the opportunity to build wealth of their own.

The massive wealth amassed from slavery was not limited to the southern region of the United States. Northern cities greatly benefitted from slavery and invested heavily in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In New York City, for example, insurance companies during the 19th century sold life insurance policies on enslaved people to help protect the wealth of enslavers.

The end of legalized slavery — with the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865 — created new economic and educational opportunities for Black people to pursue. Yet roadblocks, such as Jim Crow laws, emerged to limit Black political, economic, and social rights. And the sharecropping system that developed in the South after the Civil War increased Black debt and limited Black access to wealth.

Many companies will tweet promotional slogans, introduce new merchandise and pay lip service to diversity and inclusion.

A continuous cycle of racist and exclusionary practices, such as redlining, combined with discriminatory federal and state policies that denied financial resources to African Americans further deepened economic inequality in the United States. Historical developments like the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre — the 100th anniversary of which Americans recently commemorated — capture the sometimes violent efforts of white people to impede Black economic progress. Historians estimate that as many as 300 Black residents died in the massacre — though the number is likely much higher. The massacre displaced Black Tulsans from their homes, and they lost millions of dollars — an estimated $1.8 million in 1921, which amounts to $26.1 million today.

These are just some of the historical examples that help to explain the massive wealth gap that currently exists in the United States. As a group of researchers at the Brookings Institution recently concluded, “Wealth was taken from [Black] communities before it had the opportunity to grow.” It is no wonder that a typical white family has a net worth of $171,000, nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family in the United States. These stark racial disparities have fundamentally shaped the experiences of Black people — no doubt impeding opportunities and limiting access in various sectors of society.

And this reality cannot be divorced from the history of slavery — which is why Juneteenth is a pivotal moment to reckon with how race has shaped economic inequality.

Mainstream celebrations of the holiday are meaningful — as are the efforts by companies to commemorate the date by granting a day off or a reduced workload. Yet the expanded attention on Juneteenth should propel American companies to do a lot more than offer symbolic gestures. A more impactful commitment would be for companies to make a concerted effort to help close the massive wealth gap. For example, more investments in Black businesses and communities would not only help to improve economic conditions for Black people but would also boost the U.S. economy.

This Juneteenth, we should keep in mind how racism has fueled the massive Black-white wealth gap in the United States. As the economist Trevon Logan so compellingly argued in POLITICO, “Juneteenth only makes sense if you’re thinking and talking about the end of chattel slavery in the United States, how that came about — and what that moment meant to those who were emancipated.”