By Billie Simmons

June 19, 2021, was the first official recognition of Juneteenth in the United States, over 150 years after enslaved Texans were informed of their freedom in 1865. This year, the day falls on a Sunday, so the holiday is being observed on Monday, June 20, when federal government offices will be closed and federal employees will receive a paid day off.

I believe that Juneteenth is an opportunity not just to celebrate, but to look to the future and envision what freedom really means.

Originally, Juneteenth was a celebration of material freedom from chattel slavery. But escaping this direct incarceration is not the end of the story; in the century and a half since Juneteenth was first celebrated, African Americans have continued to face a spectrum of oppression and systemic hostility.

By this, I refer to the ongoing roadblocks that have been a consistent and disheartening impediment to African American success: Jim Crow, Black Codes, redlining and more. Each instance is another link in a chain that stretches back to slavery. That is why, now, when I speak of freedom, I speak not only of the absence of oppression but the opportunity for progress.

Freedom is the ability to choose what is best for me, my family and my community; freedom is the chance to replace the negative in our world with positivity, health and happiness. Fortunately, as the pastoral counselor for North Park Apostolic Church and a member of the San Diego County Alcohol Policy Panel, I can communicate and work directly with residents and community members, to address many of these concerns.

To take more significant steps toward realizing powerfully positive African American communities, systemic issues that have especially plagued areas over the past century and beyond must be addressed head-on. In that vein, I believe that the overconcentration of alcohol is a major barrier to supporting communities that enable and encourage Black excellence to its full potential.

Alcohol has a complex history in relation to African American communities. Historically, alcohol has been used as a tool to subjugate and demonize Black people, with drunkenness on holidays often being encouraged by slave masters to discourage discontent. Similarly, decades of predatory marketing and strategic positioning by “Big Alcohol” have often focused efforts on low-income, African American communities. Put simply, the historical impact of redlining and other systemically racist practices on these communities can be felt in the present, when families are closer to a place to buy a six-pack of beer than a gallon of milk.

This oppressive use of alcohol as a targeted tool against African American communities continues even today, as we see its effects in issues like overconcentration of alcohol retailers in communities of color. Many of the areas of San Diego that had historically been redlined — marked as undesirable due to non-White residents by real estate speculators — still face an overabundance of alcohol retailers to this day.

How then do we envision and enable African American well-being? First, we must refuse the alcohol industry’s co-opting of one more cultural holiday as they have done with so many others — St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, the Fourth of July and more. This is an important part of securing a healthy future on our own terms. Generations of our African American communities ought to be able to continue to honor and celebrate the true spirit and significance of Juneteenth without completely blurring it with booze.

In the case of an issue like alcohol outlet overconcentration, planning commission members and law enforcement officers alike need to coordinate with business leaders and residents to follow state regulations regarding the acceptable number of alcohol retailers in a community. Providing public comment and voicing that our communities do not need more alcohol sales licenses can go a long way in showing community solidarity against unhealthy levels of alcohol availability. Planning tools, such as risk assessments, can also lead to having an appropriate number of alcohol outlets in an area — and leave more room for healthy community spaces like grocery stores, gyms and outdoor green spaces.

This is progress.

As Juneteenth approaches and we prepare to celebrate and reflect, remember to look into the future as well and consider what freedom means for everyone. Envision your community as a place where all residents can survive and thrive equally.

Simmons is minister of pastoral counseling and congregational care at North Park Apostolic Church. She lives in North Park.