A Statement from Dr. Alondra Nelson in Recognition of Juneteenth
June 19th is not the day the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. It is the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas finally learned that the United States had abolished slavery. A more than two-year delay that compounded centuries of bondage with tragedy.
Although Juneteenth has been celebrated in African American communities for generations, it became a federal holiday for the first time last year. In June 2021, with the bipartisan support of Congress, President Joe Biden established Juneteenth as federal holiday. At the time, the President said:
“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. They don’t ignore those moments of the past. They embrace them. Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And in remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.
“The truth is, it’s not — simply not enough just to commemorate Juneteenth. After all, the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning.
“To honor the true meaning of Juneteenth, we have to continue toward that promise because we’ve not gotten there yet.”
Juneteenth is reminder that freedom, justice, and equal rights cannot be taken for granted. These ideals must be cherished and ever renewed. These ideals must be embodied in practice every day and defended.
Juneteenth is also a celebration of the miraculous perseverance and resilience of the descendants of the enslaved. It is a marker of a special relationship to the ideal of liberty shared by any and all of us who come from communities that have been persecuted, dispossessed, or held in bondage.
On Juneteenth, we think of Black Americans who descended from enslaved people who live today with wrongs we know, in many cases, how to set right. Our challenge as a policy office is how to do it at scale, across the entire Federal government, drawing on the talent of an increasingly inclusive and equitable research community.
We know with scientific precision the harms caused by toxic waste, polluted air, or air that allows a dangerous pandemic to spread; treeless heat islands where development has been allowed to go very wrong; and a climate crisis that most impacts those with the fewest resources to withstand it.
We are gathering better data on who is served by government, and how we can better serve them. We are beginning to understand the harms enabled by the same digital connectivity that can keep our families close and empower our education or our small business – and the need to clearly affirm civil rights in an A.I. era.
We are making progress toward a new health agency that will be charged with discovering and driving innovative cures and wellness tools for Black Americans just as doggedly as it does for other Americans. President Biden’s reignited Cancer Moonshot will do the same.
Juneteenth calls us to travel the painful distance between the ideal and the real—between the values we hold and their embodiment in our lives and our society. It isn’t enough to have powerful technologies; these tools must be deployed to make life easier, fairer, and more equitable. It isn’t sufficient to achieve extraordinary discoveries; we must ensure these breakthroughs reach every community, every family, every member of the American public. It is that gap which we seek to close in our work every day.
As we press on toward building a nation that maximizes the benefits of science and technology for the American people – and, as the Congressional statute that established this office cautions, also minimizes injurious consequences—we hold this commitment front and center alongside the President’s day-one promise in his executive order on equity to work to ensure equity of opportunity, equity of resources, and equity of outcomes. In the realm of policy, we must advance equity in science and technology, and science and technology for equity.
As we reflect on Juneteenth’s meaning and lessons for today, we must recommit to the legacy of emancipation, to the protection of civil rights, and to the fulfilment of liberty and justice for all.