Juneteenth commemorates the day, two and a half years after President Lincoln declared free all enslaved persons living in states of rebellion, that Union troops arrived in Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. The full abolishment of the institution of slavery wouldn’t come until ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December of that same year.
Yet the fight for freedom was far from accomplished, and that remains true today. In fact, we are only just witnessing the first generation of Black people in America’s history with “full rights of citizenship,” as Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote back in 2019. An accomplishment of Black people, whose struggles made it so, and whose struggles continue today to break free from the stranglehold of America’s deeply and violently racist history on the present day.
The quick death of Reconstruction and the onslaught of racist policies and practices that followed – Black Codes, convict leasing, racial terror lynchings, Jim Crow segregation, housing discrimination, mass incarceration, and more – reinforced the original harm of enslavement by systematically denying Black people access to economic, social, cultural, civil and political, and human rights. This realization of white supremacist ideology also helped to facilitate the tremendous concentration of wealth among white people through the use of forced Black labor, commodification of Black bodies, and destruction and expropriation of Black property and wealth. This subjugation of Black people was reinforced over time through laws and policies that denied Black wealth generation and privileged white wealth and with continuing anti-Black narratives to uphold white economic, social, and political dominance.
That’s why today in DC, white households own 81 times the wealth of Black households. At the same time, Black residents in the District are more than five times as likely to live in poverty and have roughly one-third the income relative to white residents. Moreover, DC has an outsized concentration of extreme wealth relative to its overall population, according to analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Just 0.4 percent of DC tax units have net worth over $30 million, and these same tax units hold 46 percent of all wealth in the District.
As we observe Juneteenth, DC and the country should (re)commit to repairing the harms of our past and its compounding negative effects in our current day. Eliminating the white-Black wealth gap is a critical goal that would offer more Black people the freedom to choose and chart their own future and see to the economic security of their children and grandchildren. But ending wealth disparity likely cannot happen without repair of the original harm of enslavement. Reparations are necessary to restore the theft of life and labor from enslaved persons and redress the harms to their descendants. According to one national study, even if Black people had the same opportunities to build wealth as white people from Emancipation to current day, the white-to-Black per capita wealth ratio would still be three-to-one.
And, because African enslavement and the centuries of racist policies, practices, and violence that followed, have systematically kept Black people from building wealth while allowing and helping white people to amass it, part of the repair of the white-Black wealth gap must be taxing the concentrated accumulation of wealth by white people to make the redistribution of resources to Black people possible. The resulting expansion of District revenues would help DC take further action to address the extreme level of inequity rooted in a racist history that continues to hold it back. That means public investment in services that meet needs, expand opportunity, and allow Black residents to live to their fullest.