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Juneteenth for white folk

2 min read

A guest commentary by Dr. Tom Hastings

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 DC in 2016.

All she wanted was then-President Obama to declare Juneteenth a national holiday 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. She has won. 

I want to see all the instances of schools or roads or bridges or anything named for Robert E. Lee changed to honoring Opal Lee (or Barbara Lee, the African American Congressmember 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 like Barbara to honor with school names so that none of the estimated 240 schools named for Confederate generals retain those ignominious, 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, death by police, imprisonment, unemployment, 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 their descendants, we are a baby step closer to taking the next step.

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. I’m a white man.

That would be good for you, if you are a white man, white woman, white child, black man, black woman, black child, or anyone. When societal conflict over race is reduced there is no American for whom that is not good.

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 is a welcome annual opportunity to learn history, justice, love for each other, and a spirit of unity where there has been excruciating division.

Juneteenth will be another opportunity to “teach our children well.”


Written by Dr. Tom H. Hastings, who serves as Coördinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University. He is also the PeaceVoice Director, and on occasion an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court.

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