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Firm in my resolve, I skipped down the hallway en route to the kitchen. The melody of loose coins collided against the inside of an old Miracle Whip jar I held onto. At the breakfast nook, I found my mother anxiously combing through medical bills and other living expenses. As her eyes rose to meet my extended arms, I offered her the contents of my “treasure jar.” The tension dissipated from her forehead and light filled her eyes as she smiled, took the jar, hugged me and thanked me profusely.
At only eight years old, I had no understanding of the proverbial phrase, “Money can’t buy happiness,” but I was keenly aware of the peace of mind it afforded my mother. A single parent working two jobs and going to school, I’d watched my mother break her back only to barely break even. It appeared that her pursuit of happiness became a high speed chase that guzzled up the gas and left her stranded at the intersection of sick and tired. As I grew into adulthood and faced my own struggles with disenfranchisement and systemic injustice, I soon understood that poverty wasn’t a product of happenstance, but an intentional impediment to my ability to thrive.
To better understand the wealth gap and economic disparity among Black Americans, we have to take it all the way back to America’s forefathers. When Thomas Jefferson penned, “All men are created equal” onto the parchment of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t extending that promise to Black people. Slavery was the building block of the American economy and Jefferson himself owned over 600 Black enslaved people in his lifetime. In fact, slavery wasn’t “abolished” until nearly ninety years under Abraham Lincoln.
January of 1865, in the epoch of the Civil War, union military leader General William Tecumseh Sherman convened with 20 Black ministers in Savannah, Georgia to learn how he and his men could aid them in fostering sustainability within their communities. The consensus among the ministers was that they wanted to own land as a means of establishing economic independence and an opportunity to grow generational wealth. There was existing evidence that land ownership was a clear pathway toward financial security as Abraham Lincoln had previously signed the Homestead Act of 1862.
The Homestead Act was the government’s way of facilitating white wealth by giving each claimant 160 acres of free land — no strings attached. While the law was in effect, the government gave away 270 million acres of land — allowing over 1,687,500 white families an opportunity to thrive. Since enslaved Black people were already making white land owners wealthy, what more could they do for themselves? General Sherman granted their request by issuing “Special Field Order Number 15,” which would redistribute confiscated and abandoned confederate land in South Carolina all the way down to Florida. Each Black family would be entitled to 40 acres (1/4 of what the Homestead Act gave white people) of land and two mules as an onramp toward reparations.
Elated by their new found freedom and prospect of a brighter future, thousands of Black families settled into portions of what became known as “Sherman’s Reserve.” Unfortunately, in April of 1865, less than three months later, Lincoln was assassinated — and the hopes and dreams of over 3.5 million freed Black people died along with him. Once Lincoln’s Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeded him, he abruptly canceled General Sherman’s order, pardoned the confederacy, and returned their land to them while Black families still occupied it.
Families who had nowhere else to go were duped into signing contracts consenting to “voluntary” servitude even though many of them were unable to read or write. Black exploitation is as American as apple pie. Throughout American history, white supremacy has always found creative avenues for extracting Black resilience and bandwidth for its own selfish gain. When it’s outwitted — as it always is — it incites violence to justify seizing the fruits of our labor by brute force — like it did during the Memphis Massacre of 1866 and more notably the East St. Louis riots of 1917.
It was the World War I era, and Black Americans in the south were migrating north during the industrial boom of the early 1900s seeking greater economic opportunities. While white workers in East St. Louis’ war factories were on strike, their bosses replaced them with Black laborers. This was an antagonist move meant to add insult to injury and salt to an open wound. The white working class, already threatened by Black upward mobility and social advancement, became venomous and set out for blood.
Black ambition dampening their delusions of supremacy, they began carrying out drive-by shootings in Black neighborhoods — an attempt to intimidate Black workers out of jobs. One summer day, Black men in one of the targeted neighborhoods fired back and allegedly killed two white plain clothes detectives. White residents in the vicinity began pouring into Black neighborhoods shooting, lynching, raping, and setting fire to Black men, women, children, and their property.
When the dust settled, up to 250 Black people were murdered; over 6,000 were left homeless, and nearly $400,000 worth of property was destroyed — which would be today’s equivalent of just under $8 million. Some would say working class white people were the victors, but I’d argue that it was, in fact, capitalism that took home the trophy. Long before wealthy white factory owners began sowing seeds of contention between working class white people and Black laborers, white businessmen lusting for land were waiting for the opportunity to snatch Black properties out from under the community. With plans of expanding commercial real estate development and Black communities reduced to ash, they finally had their chance.
Throughout American history, poor and working class white Americans have actively enlisted themselves as henchmen to white supremacy. Once white supremacy’s wealthy class took it’s first sip from capitalism’s cup, it began beating its chest and devouring its own young — it’s impoverished proletariat — all while pointing the finger at Black people. Not recognizing they’d been played as puppets to capitalist propaganda, white working class people continued taking the bait like they did in the Greenwood district of Tulsa Oklahoma in 1921.
Also known as “Black Wall Street,” the 35 blocks making up the Greenwood district was the wealthiest Black community in the United States. A 19-year-old shoeshine named Dick Rowland was in the elevator with a white elevator operator named Sarah Page when danger crept up. Some accounts say he accidentally bumped into her, others say the elevator had a mechanical issue that knocked him into her. Once every imaginable version of the story circulated all across the city, he was being accused of assaulting and raping Sarah. He was arrested the following day and a lynch mob gathered outside of the jailhouse. Seventy-five Black men — some armed — showed up to the jailhouse to make sure Dick had protection. While the sheriffs were attempting to de-escalate the tension building up, one of the white men tried to disarm one of the Black men and that’s when pandemonium ensued. Shots were fired, 10 white and 2 Black men were killed. Word made its way around the city and all hell broke loose.
City officials abandoned neutrality and sided with white residents, whom they equipped with weapons. White residents had even flown planes over Black Wall Street’s businesses and affluent residences, dropping explosives from the sky. The national guard was deployed and they were ordered to “protect” Black residents by imprisoning 6,000 of them in internment facilities. There were 800 admitted into the hospital, up to 300 deaths; 10,000 were left homeless, and there was an estimated $1.5 million — or today’s equivalent of about $32.3 million — in property damage. Like the other instances of white terrorism, there were no reparations made.
What we’ve gathered so far is that the strategy of whitecapping is the name of white supremacy’s game. Whitecapping is a term that refers to the practice of extralegal threats, harassment, bullying, enactment of violence, and governmental abuse of power to coerce Black people into forfeiting the right to economic opportunities, housing, education and voting. It is an attempt to impede our ability to generate, maintain, and pass down wealth.
In the civil rights era, white racists burned crosses in our yards to drive us away from their suburbs. They spit and threw objects at Black children as they walked into integrated schools, and wouldn’t allow us into their universities. They wouldn’t sell homes to us and resorted to redlining — denying us mortgages, loans, insurance, and other crucial services. They placed us under FBI watch and sent the IRS after us like they did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and leadership of the NAACP.
They filled their private prisons with Black bodies, while monetizing the American Criminal Justice System. They use taxpayer money to over police and terrorize our communities. They used welfare reform to break up Black families, while propagating demonizing narratives about Black recipients of federal aid. Black people rarely — if ever — reaped the benefits of the New Deal; or the GI Bill’s educational, employment, entrepreneurial or homeownership programs that literally built up the white middle class. The list of slights go on ad infinitum.
What’s more is that even when we’ve somehow successfully dodged systemic setbacks, vigilante violence, and make it over the finish line by placing our determination over our disadvantages, we still find ourselves shortchanged. According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Black people when given the same resources as white people complete more years of schooling and earn more degrees than them. Yet, when the head of a Black family graduates college, they still accumulate less wealth than a white family whose head of household dropped out of high school.
In addition to those findings, research by the Brookings Institute revealed that the average median earnings for a white American family is $171,000, which nearly makes them 10 times wealthier than an average Black family that falls at $17,150 on the median. Black Americans make roughly $0.10 to every white dollar.
This myth-busting data shatters the cognitively dissonant belief that meritocracy and one’s ability to pull themselves up by the bootstraps guarantees economic reward. We live in a society in which the American Dream was only made possible by making Black lives a nightmare. And the truth is that white supremacy would lose balance and topple over without a Black neck to sustain its footing. The Black and white wealth gap is rooted in anti-Blackness, post civil war resentment, a shattered sense of superiority, jealousy, and capitalistic greed.
So, why haven’t we been able to bridge the wealth gap? Because the U.S. government has taken zero accountability for the terror it has — and continues — to enact against Black Americans and continues denying its complicity. We’re still being conditioned to believe that white supremacy’s henchmen of the white poor and working class are the masterminds of its madness. Black Americans are no longer subscribing to the false narrative that a few bad apples poisoned the entire tree. We know that the root is always the source of the fruit it yields, and anti-Blackness is the soil in which the American government planted its seed.
The greatest gaslight to Black Americans has been the insistence that racism in 2020 is a figment of our imaginations, economic disparity is a thing of the past, and that all Americans are on a leveled playing field. But, Black Americans and comrades to our cause know for certain that reparations are in order and that the federal government must facilitate Black upward mobility as it has for white Americans since our nation’s inception.
On June 19th (Juneteenth) of 2019, the House of Representatives held a hearing on Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson’s HR 40 bill named in honor of the phrase, “40 acres and a mule.” If passed, the bill would establish a commission to study the concept of reparations and Jim Crow segregation, including the merits of a formal apology from the U.S. Government for slavery.
So far, a whopping 142 members of Congress are in support of the bill. Duke University Public Policy Professor William Darity estimates the cost could range between $10 trillion -$12 trillion — or around $800,000 per qualified household. Concerns over the nation’s $27 trillion dollar debt and the pandemic have left some economists — mostly white — scratching their heads. But, the bill commission’s role would be to at least start crunching those numbers while moving the idea of restorative justice from probability to practice. Movement leaders are pushing the Democratic Party and presidential nominee Joe Biden to also support this bill, especially given his past role in shaping policies that have decimated Black communities throughout decades. To support HR 40 would be a huge step toward making proper amends.
Social justice groups like Black Lives Matter are also calling for restorative justice and economic opportunity through defunding the police, and reallocating $1 billion from law enforcement toward developing Black and Brown communities destroyed by heavy policing and state sanctioned violence. In Los Angeles County alone, 42% of taxpayers dollars are allocated toward policing and the criminal justice system. With 10% of local controlled tax revenue coming off the top and toward Black communities, we could create better opportunities for education, support Black small businesses, generate jobs, affordable housing, and social services that don’t involve punishment based models of community accountability.
An intentional investment in community health, housing, and economic opportunity for Black Americans is the only way the wealth gap will be filled and racial justice can prevail.