June 19, or Juneteenth, marks the commemoration of the date on which the full force of the Emancipation Proclamation was finally realized and legal slavery in America brought to an end. Despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, news of its issuance was delayed and did not reach enslaved Americans until June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas. The news in Texas was met with shock and euphoria, and Texas became the birthplace of the first Juneteenth celebrations a year later in 1866.
On June 17, 2021, as the period of intense and often uncomfortable conversations regarding race relations in America continued, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. With his signature Juneteenth became an official federal holiday—the first holiday to be approved since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
Prior to becoming an official federal holiday and following civil unrest amidst protests calling for an end to racial injustices and police brutality against the African American community, there was a national trend by employers to expand their commitments to diversity and inclusion initiatives by recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Despite this effort, and an increase in awareness of Juneteenth, in 2021 studies showed that nearly 25% of adult Americans weren’t familiar with the day or what it represents.
As America continues to navigate this era of robust social change, employers should continue to search for ways and employ methods to continue to foster diverse and inclusive workplaces. Specifically, as it relates it to Juneteenth, employers should recognize and seize the opportunity to educate and inform as a part of an overall commitment to foster a more inclusive workplace. In that regard, employers may consider the following as they think about how they plan to commemorate Juneteenth this year:
- Educate and Inform Employees
While celebratory, the Juneteenth holiday marks the commemoration of the end of one of the most reprehensible periods in American history. As evidenced by the continued racial injustices persisting through today, the dark legacy of slavery has permeated far beyond its official end on June 19, 1865. Recognizing this, employers may take steps to compile educational resources (websites, videos, and written materials) related to Juneteenth, as well as other diversity & inclusion issues in the workplace. These materials may comprise a “Diversity & Inclusion Library” that may be made available to employees on demand.
- Review and Revise Internal Policies
Pay equity and other forms of employment discrimination have plagued the African American community for generations. Employers should consider engaging in a detailed review of internal policies and procedures, including: addressing ways to remedy inequities with respect to African Americans in leadership positions, addressing pay gaps in salary and bonuses, introducing bias training, and initiating and practicing inclusive language in the workplace.
- Amplify African American Employee Voices Through Leadership
Employers should consider avoiding the appearance of performative support of Juneteenth through insensitive or tone-deaf messaging stemming from a failure to truly understand what Juneteenth means and represents. At its core, Juneteenth is about reclaiming history, celebrating progress made, and reflecting on the incredible amount of work still to come. In that light, leadership may consider engaging with employees individually and highlighting employee experiences to commemorate the day.
- Host an Interactive Lunch and Learn
Employers may consider organizing a company-wide sponsored lunch during which an invited guest speaker presents on current issues and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Employers may solicit suggestions from employees for community organizations, charities, and the like whose missions are to promote racial and social justice initiatives. After the solicitation process is complete, employers may select one or more to provide an annual donation to.
This list is by no mean exhaustive, nor meant to convey or contain legal advice. The important note is that understanding Juneteenth’s historical significance and developing ways to acknowledge its importance will continue to foster a more diverse and inclusive workplace.