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How pandemic, police protests created an ‘alignment’ for racial change

The past several weeks have been tumultuous ones for American race relations. Between a pandemic disproportionately affecting Black people and new incidents of police violence, Juneteenth has taken on increased public prominence. Yamiche Alcindor talks to Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, about this unique moment -- and hope for change.

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  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    To talk more about the significance of Juneteenth, the Tulsa massacre, and this moment of national reckoning, I'm joined by Mark Anthony Neal. He's a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University.

    Thanks so much for being here, Mark.

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Juneteenth has been commemorated for decades by Americans across the country, but a lot of Americans are just now learning about Juneteenth.

    What do you think people should understand about this holiday or this day, as you think about the moment that we're living through?

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    It's an important historical marker.

    Of course, the Emancipation Proclamation occurs January 1, 1863. General Granger delivers that to the folks in Texas on June 19, 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

    What's important to remember about this particular moment is that the Emancipation Proclamation actually only freed slaves that were in the Confederacy, not in the Union. It wasn't until January of 1865 that we see the 13th Amendment, which makes slavery abolished.

    So, it's six months — or it's six months after even that the message finally gets to the folks in Texas.

    And what I'm always struck with, with that — General Granger's language is that what's implied in the context of it is that folks should, in fact, stay on the plantations and continue to work as they have, except with wages, and very clear language about the fact that Black idleness, Black leisure would not be tolerated going forward.

    So, there were always limits on what citizenship really could be in that moment, even as folks suddenly had some sense of freedom.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What do you make of President Trump saying that he made Juneteenth famous and the renewed attention that the day is getting this year?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    It's not surprising. And, of course, he thinks that he's been the best thing that has ever happened to Black America.

    That being said, it speaks to the fact that there's always been a huge gap between African American cultural practices, the things that we believe in, the things that we do, the ceremonies that we engage, and what white America actually knows about us.

    So there's no question that, even though he did not make the holiday more famous or well-known, it is something that is now in the consciousness of white Americans in ways that it hadn't been before. And, quite frankly, had he not chosen initially to schedule this rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth, whether that was a conscious political decision or just him not being able to read the room, it's clear that, over the last couple of weeks, there are more white Americans who are aware of Juneteenth than had ever been aware of Juneteenth before.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What should white Americans and corporate America who are just learning about this holiday, what should they consider?

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    I think it's important to remember that this is obviously an opportunity to learn.

    We have seen a lot of incredible shifts in terms of corporate America. When you think about these almost timeless symbols of slavery and post-slavery, Aunt Jemima, the Cream of Wheat man who we actually don't know what his name is, Uncle Ben, the fact that these symbols are suddenly disappearing, it would suggest that corporate America is starting to try to be on the right side of history.

    But we also need to be clear about the fact that we live in a cancel culture, a culture that very quickly is able to shift people's allegiances. And corporate America is well aware of the bottom line within this context.

    We'd like to believe that they have been acting for good faith to be on the right side of history, but, in this case, the right side of history is also very clearly connected to the bottom line.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And thinking about the culture that we're living in, you talked about cancel culture.

    We're also living through police protests. We're also living through the anniversary of this massacre, Juneteenth, President Trump's rally and rhetoric. All of this is happening at the same time. What do you make of that?

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    You know, this feels like a rupturous moment, almost like that moment of Juneteenth, that something has changed, and something has shifted in the culture.

    There's almost like it's like this alignment of stars, if you will, that we could have never imagined. So many Americans were feeling in traumatic states because of the COVID dynamic, in which they were raising general questions in their own lives, regardless of race, about whether or not they had full citizenship in this country.

    Because so many folks were at home dealing with COVID and the pandemic, it meant that they spent much more time watching television. So, literally, everyone got to see George Floyd's killing in ways that they might not have been able to check in on it before.

    And because of COVID, when we think about all of those young folks who are out there in the streets, who normally would be in school or pursuing internships or working, suddenly now had available time in which they could act upon their passions and political passions, it's just a unique moment where all these things come together, again, going back to even the president's decision to hold this rally.

    And, of course, he's been aching to hold a rally, because he hasn't been able to for so long. And choosing that particular date, it just allowed for us to have a much deeper conversation about race in this country.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    We only have a couple seconds left.

    But, as we think about Juneteenth, after slavery came Jim Crow and KKK and domestic violence that African Americans had to experience throughout the history of America. What gaps still exist when we think about what America did and how it failed to ensure equality for all Americans?

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    I think one of the clearest gaps is around economic inequality and economic inequities.

    When I think about the great work that's being done now by my colleague Sandy Darity and his partner Kirsten Mullen, in which they're still looking at reparations in their book "From Here to Equality," I think that's one of the ways in which we can go forward and address the kind of gaps that still exist.

    I think we can achieve some level of racial equality if folks feel that they are on the same economic playing field.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks so much, Mark Anthony Neal of Duke University.

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