Juneteenth holiday: An important moment to contemplate our nation’s past & present

What in the world could they have been thinking?

That’s one of the questions (or, at least, one hopes it is) that most
white Americans ask themselves periodically when contemplating the evil
of human slavery – the institution that undergirds so much of their
modern privilege and wealth. How could any human being ever think
themselves entitled to own another human because of their skin color?

But, of course, as many Native Americans regularly remind us, the
brutal enslavement of millions of Africans and people of African descent
is far from the nation’s only original sin. And it’s also far from the
only example from American history that readily gives rise to that
question – “What in the world could they have been thinking?”

What in the world could white people have been thinking when they
denied even the most rudimentary of civil rights to Black Americans and
enforced racist miscegenation laws for another century after the end of

What in the world could American men have been thinking when they
denied women the right to vote for nearly a century-and-a-half, along
with an array of basic property rights, for another half-century-plus
after that?

What in the world could the nation’s factory owners have been
thinking at the turn of the last century when they employed thousands of
preadolescents in virtual peonage?

What in the world could the nation’s political leaders have been
thinking when they imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans in
internment/concentration camps during World War II?

What in the world could leaders of all parties and races have been
thinking when they made LGBTQ+ people criminals and denied them the most
basic of human rights – like the right to marry – right up until 2015?

And, as even a moment’s honest contemplation reveals, new entries
continue to emerge (and hopefully always will) in the list of “what in
the world could they have been thinking?” questions.

Even comfortable progressives who now smugly contemplate their own
relative enlightenment will (one suspects and hopes, anyway) continue to
learn and progress and look back years from now on their own blind
spots and prejudices and ask, “what in the world were we thinking?”

Of course, the encouraging flipside to this phenomenon is that many
people – even some of the chief architects of the nation’s top “what in
the world could they have been thinking? moments – i.e., the old, white
and privileged men who make up roughly 10% of the population – can and
do learn, see the errors of their and their forebears’ past ways, and
find paths to growth and progress.

For a classic example, consider the man who signed into law this week’s Juneteenth national holiday into law three years ago.

As anyone old enough to remember the treatment of Prof. Anita Hill
during the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas will attest, President – then Senator — Joe Biden was
and is no saint. Rather, he was and is an imperfect human being with
plenty of foibles and prejudices who was and is capable of having his
own “what in the world was he thinking?” moments.

But there’s another thing that this week’s holiday serves to remind
us about the president – one that distinguishes him from a large
percentage of his peers in the political world: Biden is also a man who
can see the past clearly and honestly and who learns and progresses.

Fifty years ago, as a young and “moderate” border state senator, the
notion that Biden would ultimately become a champion of civil and human
rights, a partner to the nation’s only Black president and vice
president, and the proud signatory of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act – something he called “one of the greatest honors I have had as president” – would have seemed absurd.

But today, thanks to his willingness and ability to think and learn
and grow and confront the nation’s “what in the world were they
thinking?” moments, Biden has become one of the nation’s most impactful
presidents when it comes to civil and human rights and an important
bridge figure in the nation’s history.

And this, of course, represents a sharp and admirable break with his
predecessor – a president who devoted his term in office looking to
return to the nation’s past and who never acknowledged, much less
admitted and apologized for, numerous direct acts of racial and gender
prejudice and discrimination for which he was personally responsible (be
it the false and racist “birther” attacks on President Barack Obama,
his pre-political career record as a discriminatory landlord, his embrace of white nationalist groups while in office, or his sexual misconduct toward women).

What in the world could they have been they thinking?

This week is a good one to contemplate that question with respect to a
lot of moments in American history – even the 146-year delay in
recognizing the Juneteenth holiday itself. But it’s also a fine week to
think honestly about our modern politics and whether our present-day
leaders will have the courage and honesty to keep asking it.