Juneteenth, Tulsa and the Fight for Equality for Black Americans

Juneteenth, Tulsa and the Fight for Equality for Black Americans

This week, the nation is focused on two historical events: the end of slavery on June 19, 1865, which is now celebrated as Juneteenth, and the Tulsa Race Massacre which began on May 31, 1921. 

Both Juneteenth and the Tulsa Massacre have received little attention in high school history classes, leaving many Americans unfamiliar with either. Both events are receiving more attention this year as a result of both the nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality, as well as President Trump’s decision to hold his first campaign rally of the summer in Tulsa the day after Juneteenth (although he had originally scheduled it for Juneteenth).

While 1865 and 1921, may seem like a long time ago, the implications of both slavery and the Tulsa Massacre are still being felt through systemic racism--the historical and contemporary policies, practices and norms that create and maintain white supremacy—which has been a permanent feature of American life for 400 years now. 

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery.  It’s been 155 years since June 19, 1865 yet Black people still aren’t free.  

Since the end of slavery, Black Americans have been structurally excluded from fully participating in American economic, social and civic systems. Systematic racism has restricted Black Americans to jobs with lower pay, fewer benefits and limited job security, compared to their white counterparts. Structural racism through policies like redlining has also prevented many Black Americans from building wealth through homeownership, as many white families have. Before the coronavirus crisis, the typical Black family had just one tenth of the wealth of the typical white family before the coronavirus crisis ($171,000 vs. $17,000).  

Due to policy choices made at all levels of government, before the coronavirus crisis, tens of millions of Black Americans were structurally excluded from the labor market, housing, high-quality education, affordable and accessible health care, and often had no choice but to live in food deserts or places that faced a disproportionate amount of pollution. 

The coronavirus crisis has only magnified these existing inequities. The coronavirus mortality rate is more than 3.5 times higher in Black communities than white communities. Black people are also more likely to experience coronavirus-related unemployment and struggle to pay rent and put food on the table. New data shows that 54 percent of Black households have lost income since mid-March, while only 43 percent of white households have. Additionally, 27 percent of Black households with children experienced food insecurity during the last week of May, while only 9 percent of white households with children faced food insecurity that week. 

Tulsa, Oklahoma is the site of one of the deadliest massacres in US history

On Saturday, President Trump will re-launch his campaign rallies in a city known for one of the deadliest acts of violence against Black Americans in U.S. history. While much of the racism that has prevented Black Americans was, and still is, enacted by elected officials through policy, white Americans have often resorted to violence to keep Black Americans from achieving prosperity. The Tulsa Race Massacre is one of the most horrific examples of this. 

In 1921, the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, was the wealthiest black community in the United States. In Greenwood, Black people had created businesses and services on their own. Violence began after a disputed account of a Black man assaulting a white woman surfaced, but the violence quickly turned into white mobs destroying Black businesses and murdering Black people. Law enforcement failed to protect either Black lives or Black property. The attack destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the community.  More than 300 Black people were murdered, over 800 more people were hospitalized, and more than 6,000 Black residents were placed in camps. 

The wealth that had been accumulated by Greenwood residents was permanently stripped from the community. The neighborhood of Greenwood now has a highway running through it and the city of Tulsa is highly segregated.   
 

The murder of George Floyd, over a $20 bill, is another example of a long pattern of racial profiling and excessive use of force against African Americans when they encounter law enforcement.

Policing can trace its legacy to slave patrols – patrols that were created to instill fear and capture slaves who were seeking freedom. Those vestiges remain today, with law enforcement’s focus on protecting white spaces, white wealth, and controlling Black and Brown bodies.     

While Black and Hispanic Americans together made up just 30 percent of the U.S. population in 2017, almost half of all unarmed Americans fatally shot by police that year were Black or Hispanic.

Today, half of African Americans, along with more than 1 in 4 Latinos and Native Americans, report that they have endured racial discrimination when interacting with the police. 

The Trump administration has undoubtedly contributed to the current crisis by barring the Justice Department from addressing systemic police misconduct for more than 3 years. These problems have eroded trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Without trust and cooperation, law enforcement becomes less effective, crimes go unsolved, and public safety is jeopardized.

Conclusion

There is a direct through line of violence and subjugation from the day the first African sold into bondage arrived in Virginia in 1619, through 1865 when the last slave was freed in Texas, through the Tulsa Race massacre in 1921, and up through the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks this spring. While the systems of oppression have shifted over time, they continue to be omnipresent and violent. 

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