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Ricky Jones: Is a commercialized Juneteenth as good as it gets for most Black people?

Louisville Courier-Journal logo Louisville Courier-Journal 6/22/2022 Ricky L. Jones

Juneteenth, America’s newest national holiday, was quite the commercial celebration this year. There were television specials, concerts and T-shirts galore. Wal-Mart even tried selling a Juneteenth ice cream before a small national uproar prompted them to pull it from shelves.   

Of course, American commercialization is usually accompanied by an emptying out of substance and Juneteenth is not immune to that process. As Black people continue to choose contemporary entertainment over political and historical education, and performative programs over real calls for power, it’s unclear how many left this year’s festivities with a more mature understanding of American chattel slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction and the lingering consequences of them all. 

In a recent Time article on Juneteenth and the possibility of African American Reparations, Janell Ross wrote that “thinly disguised” efforts “to keep Black Americans as the nation’s permanent underclass” have persisted from immediately after Emancipation to this day. Disturbingly, those endeavors have been so successful that it’s reasonable to ask if this is as good as it’s going to get economically, politically and socially for the majority of Black Americans? 

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Sadly, the answer may be yes. 

Choose any American city, from bustling metropolises to sleepy towns, and you will see that many members of the Black underclass live in a different and dark world. The “predominantly Black side of town” is usually poor, undereducated, drug infested, violent and politically powerless. Unless something radically changes, they will remain that way for the foreseeable future. After all, who is there to stem the crushing tide of Black suffering?  

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Can despondent Black Americans depend on politicians? No. Most Republicans are brazenly hostile to them. Democrats rarely push hard enough on issues that specifically impact Black people when push comes to shove. Their excuse? They don’t want to alienate voters by concentrating too much on “cultural issues” or “identity politics.” Surely, you’ve heard those arguments.

What about within the race? Is any real help for the struggling masses coming from more successful Black Americans? Generally, the prospects aren’t encouraging.  


Video: Black Americans living abroad reflect on Juneteenth holiday (Associated Press)

The small number of true Black economic elites in America doesn’t provide much hope. Like most elites, Black ones generally live lives as disconnected as possible from the racial melee raging beneath them. It is also important to note that most (not all) of these Black elites are entertainers and athletes who have not taken the time to arm themselves with the intellectual, historical or political knowledge needed to legitimately hold their own in the brawls American racial marginalization creates. They are glaring examples that having money does not necessarily equate to consciousness or caring.

Black middle-class professionals immediately below elites aren’t much better. Many (again, not all) Black Americans in this group are unfailingly driven by vulgar individualism and careerism. They are almost wholly concerned with holding onto and augmenting their professional positions at all costs. They covet their limited social access to powerful people who allow them to attend certain gatherings from time to time but never share in real decision-making. They’re just happy to be there.  

Like the Aaron Burr character in “Hamilton,” these people speak less and smile more. When they do speak, they are careful to not rock the proverbial boat. They deploy tired rhetorical cliches and blather on and on about “working behind the scenes” or “having a seat at the table.” They don’t seem to understand their presence doesn’t matter if they are parroting the same things the dominant group at the table has been saying in perpetuity.

Opinion: Juneteenth celebrates physical freedom, now students need educational emancipation

For the controlling group, co-opting potential threats from peripheralized ones is much more effective and less messy than killing them. Unfortunately, many Black middle-class professionals are fine with being co-opted into the apparatus of control and not challenging it so long as they receive personal benefits. In fact, these Black Americans are not only agreeable but “grateful” to be part of structures that talk about “change” but never really make any. Not only do these Black Americans not seek to aggravate or agitate, they will betray Black Americans who do.  

Unfortunately, in a strange twist, many suffering and middling Black people not only tolerate, but celebrate these types of Black folk because they are still childishly enamored with “black faces in (relatively) high places.”

Eventually, bills come due for all these realities. Consequently, it is not only possible, but probable, that this is as good as it will get where large-scale African American progress is concerned. Sure, there will continue to be a small percentage of Black people who will do well individually, but they will not engage in the fight for collective progress for the lower-class masses because they see it as hopeless. Others simply don’t care. In the end, very little will change.

There is actually no historical evidence that success will expand to the masses in any appreciable way. To the contrary, the lion’s share of Black Americans seemed doomed to remain downtrodden, exploited and anesthetized. A few will “escape.” Most will not. They will remain in a closed ecosystem that breeds struggle and dehumanization. They will continue to prey on one another as many victims of generations of political, economic and structural violence and oppression often do. 

For example, right on cue, a 15-year-old Black child was killed and three other people, including a police officer, were shot at a Washington, D.C. Juneteenth music festival. The irony is palatable.

So yes, this may be as good as it gets for most Black people. Some may call that conclusion nihilistic. Others would argue it’s realistic. What do you think? 

a man wearing glasses talking on a cell phone: Ricky Jones. March 14, 2019 © Scott Utterback/Courier Journal Ricky Jones. March 14, 2019

Dr. Ricky L. Jones is professor and chair of the Pan-African Studies department at the University of Louisville. His column appears bi-weekly in the Courier-Journal. Visit him at rickyljones.com.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Ricky Jones: Is a commercialized Juneteenth as good as it gets for most Black people?

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