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OPINION

A Juneteenth holiday is symbolic. Don’t confuse it with racial justice.

GOP senators who voted to recognize the day slavery ended do nothing when it comes to legislation for systemic change.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina celebrates with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday after passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina celebrates with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday after passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has stymied anti-lynching legislation. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina denies the existence of systemic racism in America. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who characterizes the white Capitol insurrectionists as patriots, said he would have felt “a little concerned” if they had been Black Lives Matter protesters.

All of these Republican senators voted to make Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in America, a federal holiday. Don’t mistake hypocrisy for bipartisanship.

These same legislators don’t want schoolchildren to learn about the nearly 250 years of human bondage that preceded Juneteenth or how the insidious reach of this nation’s original sin, rooted in white supremacy, still disrupts the lives of Black people.

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The Senate voted unanimously to establish Juneteenth National Independence Day; 14 House Republicans voted against it. President Biden signed it into law Thursday.

Of course, this designation is way overdue. On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Civil War ended, enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, were finally told that they were free. Six months later, the 13th amendment was ratified and abolished slavery.

Celebrating Juneteenth is a long tradition in Black communities, and many states, including Massachusetts, already recognize it as a holiday. After last year’s murder of George Floyd and the police killing of Breonna Taylor, the push for federal recognition intensified.

Symbolically, national holidays are important. Perhaps now more Americans will learn what Juneteenth represents, although I fear Republicans will misuse it, as they have Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to sanitize its meaning for their own antithetical political purposes.

Yet symbolism alone can’t deliver the legislative changes that transform lives. Main thoroughfares adorned with “Black Lives Matter” in tall yellow letters and retiring Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were OK, but that kind of performative act only goes so far. Cops kneeling with BLM protesters played well with some white liberals, but it hasn’t made Black people any safer during police encounters.

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After the largest civil rights movement in this nation’s history, many of us still expect — and deserve — far more progress. A holiday is not racial equality, but that’s what Senate Republicans are peddling with their vote.

Two days before GOP senators voted for a Juneteenth holiday, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas reintroduced his Saving American History Act, which would ban federal funding to schools that have New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, “The 1619 Project,” on their curricula. Like his fellow Republicans, Cotton is about as concerned with saving American history as GOP-led state legislatures passing voter suppression laws are interested in protecting election integrity.

See all this Republican teeth-gnashing over critical race theory and “The 1619 Project” for what it is — a cheap effort to keep buried any American history that does not lionize whiteness. So Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell rallied his underlings for public relations purposes. Now when he’s accused of thwarting bipartisanship and stifling President Biden’s agenda, McConnell can point to the Juneteenth holiday as proof of Republican cooperation. When he and his party are called racists, he’ll evoke that day when Republican senators voted to laud Black emancipation.

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Black liberation today, however, is a whole other matter. McConnell doesn’t support the For the People Act, a sweeping bill to expand voting rights and access. He won’t back the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act if it eliminates qualified immunity, which shields individual officers from civil lawsuits for alleged misconduct. He rejects paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved Black people and has slammed calls for D.C. statehood as “full-bore socialism.”

McConnell continues to spread lies about critical race theory, and he endorses stripping funding from schools that teach how this nation’s racist past isn’t at all in the past and continues to impact policies and institutions. Also known as the parts of history Republicans don’t like.

On crucial issues where Republican votes would really matter, McConnell offers nothing. But, hey, at least we got a new holiday, right?

Before the House vote on Juneteenth, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, one of the bill’s Democratic sponsors, said, “What I see here today is [the] racial divide crumbling, being crushed this day under a momentous vote that brings together people who understand the value of freedom.”

Despite the holiday, the racial divide remains impassable and intentional. Just as emancipation was delayed for 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas, we have yet to be granted our full rights. Officially commemorating Black freedom is fine but no substitute for freeing Black people from racism. And if we fail to recognize and challenge the difference, we’ll keep getting symbolic crumbs while starving for justice.

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Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.