The Hollow Gesture of the Juneteenth Vote
The same Congress that made Juneteenth a holiday won't lift a finger to actually help Black people—even to protect their right to vote.
Hey, y’all. I’ve been negligent about posting recent columns here, and for that I apologize. You can read last week’s column by clicking the link: Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?
On Saturday, the U.S. government celebrated Juneteenth National Independence Day for the first time, President Biden having signed a bill enshrining June 19 as a federal holiday two days earlier.
Fourteen Republicans, all white men, voted against it in the House.
“I cannot support efforts that furthers [sic] racial divisions in this country,” Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar said in a statement. Matt Rosendale of Montana called the holiday an “effort by the Left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.”
More important than the rantings of fringe clowns is that 415 members of the House backed a bill that couldn’t get a vote last year. The Senate passed it by unanimous consent.
The country now officially marks the day Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, informing enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. Every year, we’ll be reminded of this country’s darkest chapter.
That’s good, I suppose.
But a year into our supposed post–George Floyd reckoning—protests against police violence, economic inequity, and systemic racism—this feels like a hollow, performative gesture.
After all, this same Congress hasn’t raised the minimum wage or passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. It hasn’t abolished student loan debt or permanently expanded health care coverage or established paid leave and child care subsidies. It won’t investigate the right-wing extremists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
And this same Congress has refused to protect the voting rights of Black Americans when they’ve come under threat.
It made Juneteenth a holiday, but it won’t lift a finger to actually help Black people.
If the White House can keep Senate Democrats in line—no sure thing—paid leave, child care, and health care reforms might happen through a reconciliation bill later this year. The rest will fall victim to Senate Republicans’ obstruction, assisted by Democrats’ timidity.
Sometimes the assistance is overt, like when eight Dems voted against hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But it mostly takes the form of handwringing over the filibuster, a Senate anachronism historically deployed to oppose civil rights before Mitch McConnell weaponized it to oppose everything. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona take the most heat for their fealty to the 60-vote threshold, but other Dems are also reluctant to change the rule.
So this evening, 50 senators will likely vote to advance the For the People Act, a voting-rights overhaul that ends partisan gerrymandering, bans voter purges, guarantees same-day registration, restores voting rights to former felons, and generally tries to “unrig the game,” as one Democratic staffer put it. Though those 50 senators represent 41.5 million more Americans than the 50 who will vote against it—and though the vice president would break the tie in their favor if it mattered—the motion will fail, and the bill will stall.
Down the road, Democrats might try to pass a compromise authored by Manchin, or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which reauthorizes a section of the Voting Rights Act that limits restrictions states can place on ballot access.
Those will fail, too. Democrats have no hope of winning 10 Republican votes to rein in Republican election abuses, for the same reason they had no hope of winning 10 Republican votes to investigate an insurrection incited by a Republican president: Republicans benefit from doing nothing, so nothing gets done.
As long as they give McConnell a veto, he’ll use it.
Pressure will mount on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to call a vote to nuke the filibuster. But he won’t, not unless he knows he’ll win. And unless Manchin and Sinema flip, that won’t happen. Neither shows any sign of budging.
Sinema’s office told NBC News the senator supports the filibuster “not based on the importance of any particular policy” but “based on what is best for our democracy.”
Such thinking requires an almost-willful ignorance of what the Republican Party has become: a far-right movement unwilling to concede Donald Trump’s loss, unable to view any election it loses as legitimate, but “willing and potentially able to steal an election,” as the Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, co-author of the ominous How Democracies Die, recently said.
When Schumer inevitably backs down, Democrats will have snatched an ignominious defeat from the jaws of victory, an own goal for the ages. Not only will they signal that they’re too feckless to stop Mitch McConnell from quashing their top agenda item, but they’ll give red states a green light to make a mockery of democracy—it’s not like they’ll do anything to stop them.
They’ll also broadcast that civil rights take a backseat to an unrequited lust for bipartisanship. Indeed, according to Sinema, it’s “best for democracy” that Democrats sit on their hands while Republicans gut the right to vote and block legislation to address the racial wealth gap.
But Juneteenth is a federal holiday now. So there’s that.