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How Juneteenth support grew among young Americans

The move paves the way for greater acknowledgement of a day that has slowly been gaining traction in the American consciousness.

WASHINGTON — Forty-one years ago, the state of Texas recognized Juneteenth as a holiday. This week the U.S. government followed suit.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed into law the federal government's addition of Juneteenth to its list of paid holidays. The move paves the way for greater acknowledgment of a day that has slowly been gaining traction in the American consciousness.

In 1980, Texas was first to acknowledge the holiday, because the state knew the story well. Juneteenth honors the day, June 19, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and proclaimed the end of slavery in the defeated Confederacy, more than two years after the proclamation was issued.

In total, 48 states now observe the day formally, but the real shift has come since 2000, with 44 states and the District of Columbia recognizing Juneteenth since then.

Before 2000, only four states recognized Juneteenth: Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Minnesota. But the first decade of the 21st century brought a rush of states that added the holiday, 31 states between 2000 and 2009. And 13 states have added the holiday since 2010, including North Dakota, which added it this year in April.

That's a lot of change that happened quickly and, as you might expect, that means there are differences in how people see the holiday or whether they even know about it, with some deep divides along racial lines.

A plurality of U.S. adults, 40 percent, don’t know how they feel about making Juneteenth a holiday or don't know what it is, according to data from Gallup. About one-third of adults favor making it a holiday and about a quarter do not want to.

But among African Americans there is much more support. Nearly seven in 10 favor making Juneteenth a holiday. Among whites, only 27 percent say they favor making the day a holiday, but 44 percent don't really have a clear opinion or know what Juneteenth means. Support among Hispanics is in between Blacks and whites.

The divides on Juneteenth aren’t all about race, but there's a sign that age plays a big role in how people view the new holiday.

A majority of those from ages 18 to 34 support making the day a holiday and far fewer, one-third, don't know about it, according to Gallup. The numbers decline through the age groups. For those 35 to 54 years old, 37 percent say they favor the holiday. Among those 55 or older, only 18 percent do.

Some of those differences may be about racial and ethnic diversity, of course. Younger American generations tend to be made up of a smaller percentage of non-Hispanic whites.

But it's also possible, even likely, that some of that increased support is due to younger Americans growing up with Juneteenth a bigger part of their lives and consciousness, given all the state-level activity around recognizing the holiday since 2000. This generation of Americans may simply be more aware of the story of Juneteenth and therefore more supportive of making the day a holiday.

And higher Juneteenth support among that younger generation of Americans may be a sign of the larger shift in the racial conversation in the nation to come. Looking at other topics, such as reparations for African Americans who are the descendants of slaves, a similar difference emerges in the age breakdowns.

In that youngest age group, more than four in 10 adults believe there should be reparations for those African Americans, according to a 2019 survey from Gallup. Among those 35 to 54 years old, the number drops to 30 percent. And among adults 55 or older, the figure is only 19 percent.

That's a swing of more than 20 points between the oldest and youngest adult age groups and it suggests very different views on a complex and divisive political topic.

Add it all up and the numbers suggest that this week does not just mark the end of a long journey for Juneteenth, it may also mark a turn in the discussion of race and inequality in America. Much of the next generation of American adults seem to believe there’s a long way to go on those issues and they may be ready to push for bigger changes in the years to come.