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Three numbers, and Juneteenth

Publisher’s Note: This column first ran on Juneteenth on Facebook.

Today’s numbers: 60%. 155. 2020.

That’s three-fifths – what the original Constitution established as the value of enslaved people (all black) relative to citizens (almost all white); 155 years since slavery was declared dead in Texas and the Confederacy; and today’s date, when many people are still taught that the Civil War had nothing to do with prejudice and slavery – one small example of how institutional racism warps perspective.

I’m blessed with a startlingly diverse set of friends on Facebook and in “real” life. I know some of you are fatigued by all the protest in the world right now, and, especially if you believe in the fundamental goodness of America, it’s natural to feel that focusing on problems – problems like race – just makes those problems worse and undermines all the good things our country has done. It’s especially easy to believe that if those problems aren’t your problems in a personal way – if the wounds being salted aren’t your wounds.

If you’re white, and from the south, or even the southwest, as I am, then, too, there’s this issue of: “Am I supposed to erase history? Am I supposed to be ashamed of my family?”

Here is my answer. My family came to Texas when it was still part of Mexico. They were white, mostly southerners. They were here when the Confederacy was formed, broke away from the Union, and went to war against the United States. Some of them fought for the South; some left, fought for the Union, then came back home after the war.

My whole life I have identified with my ancestor who risked his life to resign as a Travis County commissioner, evade Home Guard patrols, sneak across Texas with a Mexican-American friend, and join the Union cavalry on the Mexican border. But it’s also true that I have direct ancestors who fought for the Confederacy – whether for state’s rights, or love of Texas, or for white supremacy, I’ll never know.

What I do know is that I can still cherish and learn from history, I can still love and respect the family legacy those ancestors left me, without glorifying the cause they fought for. Those members of my family who fought for the South were wrong on the defining cause of their time.

However well intentioned, however grounded in love of land and state, the cause they fought for was wrong. It’s that simple. You can wash it in fancy words about agrarian rights, and lost causes, and graceful antebellum culture if you want. I was raised here. I know the passcodes. I know the intellectual arguments and the economic statistics. The South was wrong. My ancestors who fought for it were wrong.

But in those same ancestors, somewhere, somehow, was just enough grace to instill in the following generations enough independence, or skepticism, or open-mindedness, maybe it was just simple humanity – call it what you will – that over time minds opened and opinions changed. The old Rebels in my family intermarried with ones that had fought for the Union and became a new type of rebel, unwilling to abide what the south would make of itself after the Civil War in the days of Jim Crow, lynchings, and the Klan.

Today, we celebrate Juneteenth, and just as clearly as the fact that the war itself is over is the fact that we have yet to fully wrestle with its underlying causes. I saw a four-star general note this week how odd it is that we have military bases across the country named for Confederate generals but not a one named for the Union general who won the war – U.S. Grant – nor one named for any black American general or medal of honor recipient.

“Institutional racism” does not mean all white people hate all black people, or that no black person can ever get a break. It does not mean this is a bad country or that our institutions are irredeemable. It does not mean black people don’t want to live here or that white southerners should be ashamed of who we are.

But real, hard racism, the racism of nightsticks and night riders, existed for decade upon decade upon everlasting decade in this country, and that is a truth from our history that lingers, that, isn’t dead — that, as Faulkner said, isn’t even really the past. So that, given our history, given that in my own lifetime it was still illegal or impractical for black and brown people to do many things I take for granted, many institutions evolved in ways that promoted subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism – in lending, policing, bonding, narcotics laws, prison sentencing, and housing. This is what institutional racism is, and it survives, often unintended, even where overt racism has receded.

Most of us long ago rejected sic’ing police dogs on children protesting civil rights and the segregation and bigotry of the Old South. But it’s taken longer to understand how institutional choices and prejudices lead slowly but surely to a man lying on the sidewalk pleading for breath and calling for his mother as he dies with a police officer’s knee on his neck. It infects us all in in ways we’ve been slow to fathom and, like another virus that’s among us, the cure is challenging.

I probably won’t join the festivities this Juneteenth (COVID; I’m immunosuppressed). But it’s a great holiday, if you’re a Texan. If you’re black, I can imagine the special resonance it has in history, and the amazing relevance it must have today as black people lead new armies – of all colors – into the field, seeking the other two-fifths the Constitution hinted at, the fulfillment of the promise that General Gordon Granger and the forerunners of the 13th and 14th amendments offered 155 years ago, and the possibility that 2020 seems to offer. And if you’re a white Texan, like me, a westerner at heart, but still chained to the south by the shackles of unresolved and unrepented slavery, then Juneteenth offers a chance to celebrate freedom for fellow Americans, a chance to celebrate something America did right, a chance to celebrate growth, a chance to acknowledge accountability.

If you are spiritual, it is a chance to think, to think not about shame – as some would have you do, or more to the point, as some would have you think Black Lives Matter wants you to do – but to think about how chains run both ways, and about how corrosive they are; to think about fear, especially racial fear, and about how self-damaging and pointless it is to mistrust a difference in DNA that is so small that it manifests itself in subtle changes in the pigment of skin and the texture of hair, the width of a nose. If you are white, it also is the chance to celebrate the generational possibilities for redemption, for atonement, and thus, as is Juneteenth’s want, liberation.

And for all of us, black and white and brown, perhaps this year Juneteenth represents the possibility of finally bringing change unto the world, change that might, at last, put our ancestors to better rest.

Jeff Barton was an editor and publisher of the Hays Free Press in the 1980s and early 1990s. He was later a county commissioner from the Buda-Kyle area during three separate terms, most recently from 2007-2010. He is now partner in a policy and public communications firm headquartered in Hays County and working across the state. This is adapted from an online essay he posted.

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