Juneteenth: The Anniversary of Slavery's End and the Ongoing Struggle for Economic Equity

Juneteenth, commemorated annually since 2021 as a federal observance, marks a pivotal moment in American history—the end of slavery. It also serves as a stark reminder of the continuous struggle for justice and equality in the United States. In the context of public pensions, Juneteenth underscores the importance of secure retirement plans in promoting economic equity for all Texans.

The economic disparities among Black and brown communities in the U.S. are profound and pervasive. These disparities are evident across various dimensions, including income, wealth, employment, education, and homeownership, significantly impacting retirement savings. Low wages often lead to reduced or nonexistent retirement benefits, exacerbating economic insecurity.

Learn more about Juneteenth.

Racial Economic Disparities

A 2023 Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report titled "Chasing the Dream of Equity: How Policy Has Shaped Racial Economic Disparities" highlights the enduring racial disparities in wages, wealth, and homeownership among Black and brown Americans. Despite advancements post-civil rights legislation, these disparities continue to widen, demonstrating the deep-rooted nature of economic inequities.

The EPI, a nonprofit organization focusing on the well-being of low- and middle-income workers, revealed that over the past 50 years, the annual Black unemployment rate frequently exceeded 10%, while the white unemployment rate never did, even during severe economic downturns. Furthermore, white families possess wealth that is, on average, eight times greater than that of Black families.

"This racial wealth gap is a legacy of decades of government policies that denied African Americans economic opportunity," the report's author, Adewale A. Maye, a policy and research analyst with the EPI's Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, said in an interview with TEXPERS.

He said the research matters because, despite progress in civil rights, federal policies still need to be changed to include race-conscious and measurable policies.

"I wrote this report [in 2023] to mark the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom [the 1963 protest march that brought 250,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial to demand civil rights and jobs after violent attacks on civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama]," Maye said. "We haven't made much progress in removing barriers to Black Americans' full inclusion in the U.S. economy."

Historical Context of Black Economic Progress

To understand the current economic position of Black and brown Americans, it is essential to look back at U.S. history, Maye said. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, was a monumental step in transforming the legal status of over 3.5 million enslaved individuals in Confederate states from enslaved to free. This paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment, which formally abolished slavery.

However, the journey towards economic equity was far from over. In Texas, news of emancipation did not reach enslaved people until June 19, 1865, now celebrated as Juneteenth. The post-Civil War era saw efforts to integrate formerly enslaved people through initiatives like the Freedman's Bureau, which provided food, housing, medical assistance, and land. The Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877) briefly allowed Black individuals to participate in the political process, gain land, and seek employment. However, the advent of Jim Crow laws soon reversed many of these gains.

The Supreme Court's 1869 ruling in favor of racial segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine further entrenched racial inequalities. Black Codes and subsequent Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation, marginalizing Black and brown people and denying them fundamental rights and opportunities. These laws had devastating economic impacts, excluding Black Americans from critical legislation like the Fair Labor Standards Act, the G.I. Bill, and the New Deal.

The Civil Rights Era and Ongoing Challenges

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a crucial period in the fight against segregation and discrimination. Landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 marked significant progress. However, Maye said that many demands of the movement, particularly those related to economic equality, remained unmet.

Maye identifies three key economic indicators to measure progress toward racial equity: wages, unemployment, and housing.


The racial wage gap is a significant barrier to economic equity. The EPI's research shows that Black workers' wages have not kept pace with productivity over the past 40 years, mainly due to stagnant minimum wages, declining union coverage, and occupational segregation. The current Black-white wage gap stands at 23.4%, with Black workers earning significantly less per hour than their white counterparts.

"Despite some progress, Black workers' economic conditions have not improved as much as those of white workers," Maye said. "The decline in union membership since the 1970s has further eroded wages and increased income inequality, highlighting unions' critical role in raising wages and combating economic disparities."


Unemployment rates among Black workers have consistently been double those of white workers, even after the passage of civil rights legislation, according to the EPI report. Maye said racial biases in hiring and persistent education and skills gaps contribute to these disparities.

"During economic downturns, Black unemployment rates have reached alarming levels, underscoring the need for strong and inclusive labor standards and equal employment opportunities," he said.


Discriminatory practices in housing have severely limited Black families' ability to accumulate wealth, according to the EPI report. Exclusionary zoning, high denial rates for mortgage loans, and explicit housing discrimination are listed as having restricted access to affordable housing and homeownership.

"Despite legislation intended to address these issues, discriminatory practices persist, impacting Black families' economic stability and wealth accumulation," Maye said.

Impact on Retirement

Maye said EPI researchers also see that many older workers are trapped in crummy jobs and unable to retire. Studies show that the economic disparities result in a trickle-down effect on retirement savings. Lower wages and higher unemployment rates reduce access to retirement planning and savings.

According to a study outside of the EPI, public sector jobs offer a glimmer of hope. Defined benefit pensions in the public sector provide a critical buffer against economic hardship and contribute to reducing retirement inequality. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS), public pensions are more equitably distributed by race and gender than private pensions, helping to narrow the wealth gap among older families.

NIRS's report "Closing the Gap: The Role of Public Pensions in Reducing Retirement Inequality" highlights the significant impact of public pensions on economic equity. The report finds that public pensions reduce retiree poverty and near-poverty, with Black and Latino retirees benefiting the most. Pension income is more evenly distributed by race and gender, with Black pensioners holding nearly the same wealth as their white counterparts.

Texas Pension Data

In Texas, the impact of public pensions is particularly noteworthy. Black workers in Texas are significantly more likely to be on a retirement plan if they work in the public sector, according to NIRS' Texas supplemental State Fact Sheet to its Closing the Gap report. Public sector plans cover many Black retirement plan participants, providing critical economic stability. Between 2013 and 2021, Black retirees in Texas with pension income were much more likely to have incomes above 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.

The average wealth value of pension benefits for Black pensioners in Texas, while slightly lower than that of white pensioners, still represents a significant boost to economic security.

About the Author:
Allen Jones is the director of communications and event marketing for TEXPERS. He joined the Association in 2017. Before TEXPERS, he worked in the news media industry, producing content for newspapers, magazines, and online publications and leading newsrooms as an editor and publications manager. [email protected]


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