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'We need to be careful to not... allow marking holidays to be a substitute for the work that needs to take place': Case Western's Hardaway

Case Western Asst. Professor of Law, Ayesha Bell Hardaway joined Yahoo Finance Live to break down the legacy of Juneteenth and breaking down the debate on reparations.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Welcome to "A Time for Change," I'm Sibile Marcellus here with Kristin Myers and Alexis Christoforous. We're just days away from an important holiday that gets even bigger each year, Juneteenth. It's the commemoration of June 19, 1865, a day when some were still enslaved in this country, and were finally set free.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Juneteenth is a day of celebration, but with its own complicated history. Here's a quick look at the roots of the holiday. The full story of Juneteenth begins with President Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, stating that all persons held as slaves shall be then thenceforward and forever free.

But two years later, there were still more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas. Finally, on June 19, 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, US General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to release them from slavery, declaring that all slaves are free. Today, June 19 or Juneteenth, is celebrated as the effective end of slavery, recognized as a holiday by the majority of US states. And since the murder of George Floyd, honored by more and more companies.

Now this year in Galveston on the very spot where General Granger stood, a new 5,000-square foot mural commemorates the long and difficult journey from enslavement to freedom. It pulls its name, "Absolute Equality," from Granger's words that day in 1865 when he called for "an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves."

KRISTIN MYERS: And joining us now to talk about Juneteenth and racial justice is Ayesha Bell Hardaway, Assistant Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. Professor, great to have you here with us. So Juneteenth is known as Jubilee Day, but it's also known as Freedom Day. How are you reflecting on a day that is about freedom, especially after a year like 2020 and when thanks to the criminal justice system, so many Black Americans particularly, Black men, are not free?

AYESHA BELL HARDAWAY: Yeah, so thank you so much for having me, Kristin and Alexis, it's great to be with you today. I, as we always have in recent time, since I've been an adult, me and my family, we commemorate Juneteenth together as a celebration. And it is Kristin, as you say, something that marks freedom, is something worth celebrating. Emancipation is something worth celebrating, especially considering all of the horrors, the degradation, the subjugation that we now know is American slavery. That is something that requires jubilation and celebration.

But as you mentioned, the symbolism of Juneteenth in a lot of ways has only really been that for many still yet in this country, many Black people still in this country, because of the realities of what happened after Emancipation during Reconstruction and how the 13th Amendment really became a vehicle by which we were able to use the carceral state as a new entity by which we would have slavery by another name.

And so that reality right now, we know America is the leader in terms of prison population rates of any country in the world. And having those types of numbers with 60% of Black and Brown people being, comprising those who are housed in prison jails and detention centers, we know that freedom as you mentioned, is something that does not exist for many Black Americans in this country.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Professor, we know that Juneteenth is not a federal holiday. All but three states recognize it as a state or ceremonial holiday, the exceptions being North and South Dakota and Hawaii. What would it mean to the nation if Juneteenth were to become a federal holiday?

AYESHA BELL HARDAWAY: That's a really great question. I mean, what does it mean to the citizens of the states where it's recognized as a state holiday? I think we should be very careful about letting the symbolism of the day become more than what the principle behind Emancipation is supposed to be. And so while looking at that map there, so while recognizing that so many states do observe the Juneteenth holiday, the real question is--

--What does that look like in practice for the lives of Black Americans who we know are subjected to racial disparities not just in the criminal legal system, but also in housing and education and employment, in health care, in so many areas of everyday life across the board. Black Americans experience a level of discrimination and racial disparity bias that undermines or undercuts what we would imagine what I think the principles of Emancipation or freedom are supposed to stand for.

So I think you recognizing the holiday, the day or commemorating the day as a holiday is important, but I don't believe that that is the only thing that needs to happen here. We need to be careful to not rest on our laurels and allow marking holidays to become a substitute for the work that needs to take place.

KRISTIN MYERS: So Professor, some of the work that needs to take place that a lot of folks have been chatting about lately, two big issues in particular. One is reparations and the second is criminal justice reform, particularly with an eye on police reform. We have seen a lot of movements both on federal national levels, but also on state and local levels not just to reform the police, but also for moves towards reparations.

I'm curious to know as we're in this moment of solution-finding right now if the best strategy moving forward is to do something on a federal national level, is that where the push needs to be made for something like reparations? Or is it best to do this on a local level? Are we actually going to make progress only when states and local municipalities take up that mantle?

AYESHA BELL HARDAWAY: Can I say both? I think the reality is, is that there's a lot of work to be done here. And waiting for the state or waiting for the federal government to step in and to accept responsibility for whatever that looks like or wherever that may lie, for their obligations or their misconduct, is important. Let me just say that. Let me say that really clear. I'm sorry, I'm stumbling here.

I think if the federal government can move on House Bill 40 that has been introduced into Congress every year since John Conyers began introducing it in the 1990s, I think that could be critically important, and is critically important. But I think the leadership that like the state of California or the city of Evanston, Illinois has demonstrated is also critically important.

Because we know that the Federal administrations change from time to time, as we saw, you mentioned police reform. Under the prior administration, there really was no appetite for police reform. And because of that, states like Illinois had to assume a role in ensuring that consent decrees or police reform came to cities like Chicago. And so I think to be short in my answer, a little bit shorter than it was, both. We need to have the ability on both the state and the federal front to enact remedies, such as whether it's consent decrees or reparations.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: On the issue of reparations, Professor, most Americans, in fact, 67% say the government should not make cash payments to the descendants of slaves. And it falls along racial lines. 73% of Black Americans believe reparations should be made. Just 16% of whites feel that way. There are some individuals who become defensive. They argue, I didn't enslave anyone personally, why should I have to pay? What would you say to those people?

AYESHA BELL HARDAWAY: I would say that a question of personal responsibility has never been the answer for addressing governmental harm. That individuals who may or may not have lived during a particular time don't necessarily, that doesn't carry the weight, and it doesn't get to the crux of the problem. The real issue with American slavery is the fact that it was sanctioned by the government, that the land that we live on was worked on by Blacks and that the benefit of that labor has gone to the government and to corporations. And in fact, has built white wealth in this country.

But the individual responsibility for that is not the answer or the distinction by which we should decide whether or not reparations are due. The real question is whether or not the harm or the debt is owed. And I think that there's extensive research. I know that there's extensive research that answers that question in the affirmative.

The next question should be, how does the government and how do certain corporations that benefited from those that were enslaved and not compensated for that labor, how do those entities make good on the benefit that they unjustly received?

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, Ayesha Bell Hardaway, Assistant Law Professor at Case Western Reserve University, thanks so much for joining us today.