“When we think of white supremacy, we picture colored only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates
There is no panacea for American racism—no single policy or protest or legislative proposal that can cure the ills of this deep-seated, multi-layered disease. The killing of George Floyd, and many others before him, has our national attention focused on the issue of police brutality. Calls to defund the police are ringing out in cities across the country.
To this cause, I’m both sympathetic and skeptical. I’m supportive of communities of color who wish to defund or dismantle an institution that has all too often done the opposite of “protect and serve” them, but I also question the ability of such an initiative to make progress towards true racial justice.
Everything is and should be on the table, and reforms to the way we do policing are undoubtedly worth considering. But when it comes to appropriating our limited energy and resources, I think there is an issue that deserves a bigger slice of that pie—an issue that should seize centerstage in this moment of national urgency towards addressing racial injustice. That issue is the enormous economic gulf that divides black and white America.
Real solutions come from addressing root causes, and economic oppression is a root cause of a lot of problems in black communities, police brutality included. Black people are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, and while the caricature of the “black ghetto” is problematic, impoverished communities are more likely to experience crime, and therefore, more likely to experience encounters with police that have the potential to turn violent.
Economic inequality also helps respond to one of the favorite refrains of those who question the Black Lives Matter agenda, “Why are we so worried about blue-on-black crime when the real problem is black-on-black crime?” There is no excuse for police brutality, but black-on-black crime is a problem that plagues many black communities, and makes policing those communities a difficult and dangerous job. But, once again, it’s important to consider root causes. Why are levels of black-on-black crime so disproportionately high? Is it due to the fact that people born with black skin are innately more likely to exhibit violent behavior? If you believe that, you are literally a “racist”. But assuming you don’t, then there needs to be another explanation, something that stems less from biology and more from socialization. That explanation lies within the impoverished communities that black people are more likely to be born into—communities in which socioeconomic conditions leave people more susceptible to participation in criminal activity.
And those conditions are 400 years in the making.
The black poverty of today did not fall from the sky. It’s a construction of American history that took centuries to build. That history begins with slavery.
The enslavement of black people on American soil is older than the country itself, and it is the starting point for the black-white wealth gap that has never went away. For nearly two-and-a-half centuries, black slaves occupied the unusual economic position of being mostly unable to accumulate wealth while simultaneously representing wealth as the property of their white owners. They also generated enormous amounts of wealth through their labor, even though they didn’t share in any of the profits. In the seven cotton producing states in the antebellum South, it is estimated that one third of all white income was derived from slavery. By 1860, there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River Valley than anywhere else in the country. That wealth has been passed down through generations of white families, even though it was literally built on the backs of enslaved black people.
Following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the brief period of Reconstruction offered a glimmer of hope to newly freed blacks that measures would be taken to reduce their economic deprivation. Forty acres and a mule was part of the initial promise made by the American government to help former slaves begin their new lives as free people. It’s amazing to think where our country might be today if this promise had been fulfilled. But it wasn’t. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency and rescinded the order, returning all the land set aside for freed slaves to the white southern planters who had owned it originally, and who had attempted to secede from the Union in order to preserve their “right” to force slaves to work it.
Black people remained free from state-sanctioned bondage, but their undesirable situation showed that freedom without economic security is no freedom at all. They had lost their chains, but what did they have to start their new lives as free people? Without money, without skills, without formal education, what was a free black man to do upon his release from the plantation in a country that, despite his legally recognized humanity, still saw him as something to be disdained? Many ended up back on plantations working as sharecroppers for the same families who owned them in previous decades, and became a part of a system that many historians have referred to as “slavery by another name.”
When Reconstruction came to a close, the South rapidly returned to the project of constructing a society steeped in white supremacy. Legalized segregation, voter suppression, and violent intimidation all collaborated to deny blacks political and economic opportunity. Even when black people were able to overcome all odds and achieve economic prosperity, incidents like the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 showed how quickly that wealth could be wiped away.
In an attempt to flee the horrors of the Jim Crow South, many blacks headed North in hopes of finding something better. Unfortunately, better was still bad. Discrimination in employment left blacks with few pathways to upward economic mobility. Those able to succeed still found themselves unwelcomed in emerging wealthy, white suburbs. Instead, black families with wealth were pushed towards poor, black neighborhoods where predatory mortgages torpedoed them back into poverty. This practice, known as redlining, is one of the primary forces that led to the formation of the black ghettos we see across the urban North today.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s made some pretty historic progress towards racial equality, but few of those achievements were centered around economics. Decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 went a long way towards gaining black Americans political equality, but economic equality still remained elusive. While most remember Martin Luther King as the guy with a “Dream” in 1963, not many are aware that, towards the end of his life, King had shifted his focus to much more “radical” causes, including economics. It’s worth quoting from one of his last major interviews at length:
“White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil…America freed the slaves in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, and nothing in reality…to get started on. At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base. And yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked free for two hundred and forty-four years, any kind of economic base. And so, emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate, and therefore, was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the Negro to “lift himself by his own bootstraps”, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression, and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”
This is the reason that King was in Memphis in the Spring of 1968. He was there to support striking sanitation workers who were staging a protest against unequal wages and working conditions. King did not leave Memphis alive.
Fast-forward to today. Millions of black Americans are still “bootless”. The wage gap between blacks and whites has been widening in recent decades, and the gap in homeownership is as large as it was on the day King was assassinated. When it comes to net worth white households on average possess about ten times the wealth of black households, creating cradle-to-grave security or cradle-to-grave poverty depending on which side of those statistics you’re on. These inequities are magnified during the current pandemic. Black people make up 13% of the country’s total population but have made up 23% of Covid-19 deaths, a stat no doubt bolstered by the fact that black people are almost twice as likely to lack health insurance compared to whites. At every turn, the lingering economic inequality that began the day the first African slave was imported to Jamestown is still hampering the crusade for racial justice dozens of generations later.
So, what do we do about?
The most powerful piece that I read in preparing this essay was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”—a must-read for any American that cares about racial justice and even more of a must-read for any American that doesn’t. In the article, Coates outlines a thorough history on many of the historic injustices that I’ve more briefly discussed here, and his belief that black Americans today must be financially compensated for the wealth that was robbed from their ancestors, and by consequence, them.
There are many forms that these restorative payments could take. They could be checks sent out to individual African-Americans who can demonstrate a legacy of slavery in their lineage. They could be, as Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree suggests, targeted investments in things like job training and public works that operate under the mission of racial justice, but indirectly assist the poor of all races.
What makes the idea of reparations most attractive to me is that they are a systemic response to a systemic problem. The racial economic divide that exists in present day America is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. Americans carefully and intentionally created it. They created it through slavery, segregation, violence, discrimination, Jim Crow, redlining, voter suppression, sharecropping, and the scientifically disprovable belief that skin color determines the superiority or inferiority of persons, or if they are even persons at all. It’s an outcome created by a system, and it will take a system to destroy it.
Reparations are about “repairing”—repairing the economic damage done to black communities throughout the course of American history. But they’re also more than that. They’re also a step towards healing—healing an enormous wound in the flesh of racial harmony that’s led to so much mutual hatred and mistrust between the “races” that we’ve created. As Coates puts it:
“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
Perhaps defunding the police could play a role. Redirecting police department dollars towards an investment in a struggling community of color could be an important step both practically and symbolically. But that’s not enough. Not even close.
Reparations would be a colossal project, but one of the many lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that if we deem a project to be sufficiently important, we’re willing to commit as many dollars as that project needs. The federal government has already invested trillions of dollars in Covid-19 relief spending, and it’s possible that there are trillions more to come. But as devastating as this pandemic has been for the American economy, it pales in comparison to the economic devastation wrought on black communities over centuries of subjugation.
Reparations don’t need to happen in one fell swoop, but it’s time for the economic divide to take center stage in the national dialogue on racial justice. It’s time for H.R. 40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—to receive serious consideration from our elected leaders. The problem of American racism is much too complicated to be solved simply by throwing money at it, and certainly there is no amount of money that can truly “make up” for the gross injustices of the past. But when racial inequities of all kinds are so deeply rooted in economics, and in a country where financial security is so closely linked to the experience of true freedom, money is a good start.