By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN — As Juneteenth approaches its second official anniversary as a federal holiday, companies have used it to net targeted demographics of consumers without acknowledging its greater message of independence.
“It speaks to the larger idea of ‘honor Juneteenth first and then create products around honoring Juneteenth,’” said Jason Greer, a 17-year labor specialist and former National Labor Relations Board member. “So when we talk about the commercialization of Juneteenth, it’s unavoidable because it’s America, let’s be real, but I think that if you’re going to be a company that’s going to release products geared toward Juneteenth and you’re exploiting the Black community, make sure that you understand the history of Juneteenth. Make sure that your current platform suggests that people trust you enough and that what you’re putting out in terms of your products and services is actually consistent with what you do in terms of diversity and inclusion,” Greer said.
He also pointed to the murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic as two important and intertwined events that changed American society from both a social and economic standpoint. With systemic racism continuously going viral during the lockdown, many white Americans at once were exposed to the realities of racial injustice and economic disparity. They began to feel, in some ways, the disenfranchisement of their Black and Brown working-class brethren, Greer said.
When factoring in the emergence of remote work, the disproportionately smaller amounts of PPP loans to minority-owned businesses and that essential workers were disproportionately Black, Brown, underpaid and underserved, it’s not surprising to see worker movements such as the Great Resignation emerge.
The Juneteenth product campaigns Wal-Mart and Target have engaged in are two examples of capitalist encroachment on the holiday. Ultimately, the question we all must answer is how to keep this holiday true to its origin and focused on securing freedom while fighting capitalism.
“You have to start out by acknowledging that Juneteenth is something that many members of the Black community have been acknowledging and celebrating for decades,” said Calvin Eaton, owner of 540WMain, a virtual non-profit anti-racist platform that focuses on major issues like gentrification, redlining and housing and police/criminal justice.
“What Black people want is reparations,” Eaton said. “I think the recognition of the holiday is less about people making money from it and slapping a Juneteenth label on a napkin or other products, but really recognizing the continued fight for freedom that many people in the African American community continue to need … We know that segregation and the effects of redlining continue to plague communities throughout the country, both in the south and in the north, and I think that what people really want is acknowledgment of this continued fight for rights, for reparations, for a conversation about how wealth has been inequitable in the Black community.”
Adding insult to injury, Eaton said, is that Wal-Mart, a company that’s no stranger to controversies surrounding workers’ rights and the shrinking of small businesses, is tokenizing a holiday meant to acknowledge independence and justice in America.
Greer said that for companies, the first step is to take a step forward. “Juneteenth is not just a Black holiday; Juneteenth is a holiday celebrating the freedom, the emancipation of all Americans, because where you have individual suffering there has to be collective grief, and if there’s collective grief there has to be collective action,” he said. “It’s also taking the idea of Juneteenth and making it a focal point of the organization and saying that this is another element of a greater conversation that we need to have internally, because if we’re going to create a safe space for people to be who they are irrespective of their social standing … [W]e have to be real about where we are,” he said.
And where we are isn’t promising. Though Black affluence is increasing, it’s still far outpaced by white affluence rates.
According to the Brookings Institution, “At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016. Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception. The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens.”
The Center for American Progress published an issue brief concerning Black wealth pre- and post-pandemic last July. “In a matter of weeks, Black households, with little in the way of wealth or savings, were burdened with the severe financial demands that the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent recession placed on them. They were often faced with a choice that either exposed them to a virus with a disproportionate likelihood of severe complications compared with their white peers or lost them vital income at a time when unemployment was spiking to unprecedented levels and federal support was slow and infrequent,” the brief states (https://www.americanprogress.org/article/wealth-matters-black-white-wealth-gap-pandemic/).
The 2015 Charleston shooting of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that killed nine and the more recent hate crime carried out in Buffalo last month that left 10 Black shoppers dead and three injured are additional testaments that we’ve still got a long way towards securing freedom for Black and Brown people living in America.
A list of local Black businesses can be found at https://www.nowplayingnashville.com/categories/black-owned-businesses/. There are also some apps, such as Black Owned Nashville, Blapp and Official Black Wall Street available to help you find and shop Black-owned businesses.