As a young Black man, I feel elated that large private sector employers, including my San Francisco law firm, are finally recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday. The spilled blood of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have joined together to become a tripartite siren song, captivating the national ear to truly hear the stories Black Americans have shared since 1619. Unfortunately, like our enslaved forefathers and mothers living in Texas on June 18, 1865, emancipation edicts have been issued but full freedom remains elusive.
The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd represent the latest chapters in the painful anthologies created by the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the convict leasing system, sharecropping, and discrimination in housing, healthcare, and education. The acts of violence and dehumanization limiting the freedoms promised by the Emancipation Proclamation did not arise out of a primordial ooze. They were birthed by laws, policies and procedures. This is the history that creates and maintains the system of violence that snatched away the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It is in this context of tempered emancipation that we must understand the current challenges facing the Black community.
I would be remiss to allow my fellow Americans to mourn the lives taken from this world too soon without asking them to confront the bridled realties that led to these deaths in the first place. Justice for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the Black community will never happen by merely punishing individual bad actors. America must understand and challenge the larger systems of confinement which continue to coalesce and create these tragedies. Recognizing a Black American holiday commemorating the belated receipt of freedom for slaves in Texas is not enough.
Most Americans see the modern day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery as an impermissible and unspeakable aberration from our justice system. Yet how many Americans fail to raise an eyebrow about the economic and racial segregation found in our urban inner cities and affluent suburbs? How many Americans treat the segregation of communities created by redlining, subprime loans, predatory lending, housing discrimination and restrictive covenants as part and parcel of the violence that made Ahmaud’s killers view him as a threatening anomaly requiring confrontation and extermination?
Most Americans see the murder of Breonna Taylor in her sleep as stemming from overzealous and poorly trained law enforcement. Yet how many Americans ask why her murder would never happen in an affluent white suburban neighborhood? How many Americans refuse to see the relationship between the over-policing of Black communities and Breonna Taylor’s death?
Most Americans see the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd as the ultimate act of dehumanization. Yet how many Americans refuse to believe their Black friends and neighbors when they share stories of everyday dehumanization: Black women followed by store employees while shopping; young Black men pulled over by police while driving; Black professionals assumed to be the janitor at the office. How many Black Americans have to be asphyxiated on national television before our voices have credibility?
Despite the promise of Juneteenth, constriction still defines the daily experience of Black Americans. Where can we exercise? Where can we sleep? Where can we breathe?
America needs to pan the camera back from looking at the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd as merely heart-wrenching tragedies. Tears will not resurrect the dead or destroy structures designed to limit our emancipation. It is time for our current political leadership to finish what our forefathers attempted to start in 1865. Our enslavement and marginalization were political fictions. Our liberation will require those same authors to issue a correction. As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, America must vow to challenge the historical and legal inventions kept alive and reinvented by every subsequent generation that keep Black Americans from fully reaping all of the fruits and promises of emancipation.
Antonio Ingram is a lawyer who works in San Francisco. He cares about social justice and progressive public policy.