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    Discovering her past: Element uncovers her roots through African Ancestry DNA testing Tarik Moody


The double standard of reparations in America via broken promises and boons

todayFebruary 23, 2024

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The double standard of reparations in America via broken promises and boons

As Black History Month draws to a close, America’s fraught racial history is steeped in injustice, exploitation, and broken promises that have compounded over centuries to fuel deep economic and social divides. The immorality of this system was reflected in the economy as well. By 1860, the total value of all slaves was estimated to have been between $2.7 and $3.7 billion – making slaves one of the largest capital assets in the U.S. at the time. This immense value underscores how slavery was not just a social institution but also a critical economic one, with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of slaveholders. 

The accumulation of wealth through slavery contributed to significant economic disparities and laid the groundwork for enduring racial and economic inequalities that undergird the reparations debate today. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln betrayed the prevailing attitudes behind this painful legacy by saying

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…I am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Abraham Lincoln

This racism and oppression is exemplified by the striking double standard in how America has approached the question of reparations As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presciently declared in 1963 regarding the March on Washington: “When we get to Washington, we are coming to get our check.” Yet on one hand, there were hollow vows made like the unfulfilled promise of “40 acres and a mule” to formerly enslaved Black Americans in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War. On the other, there were substantial government subsidies through policies like the Homestead Act that served as windfalls for many white Americans. This dichotomy lies at the heart of the reparations debate that still rages nationwide today.

The Dawn and Dusk of “40 Acres and a Mule

The story begins in 1865 when Union General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15. It set aside 400,000 acres of confiscated Confederate land along the southeastern Atlantic coast for redistribution to newly freed slaves in plots of up to 40 acres per family. The provision of mules to work the land came later, cementing the concept of “40 acres and a mule” in the ‌public consciousness. While not explicitly framed as reparations, this radical policy was intended to give Black Americans an economic stake in postwar society. By June, some 40,000 emancipated slaves had been settled on designated land.

This first systematic attempt at redress for the exploitation of slavery gained formal approval from President Abraham Lincoln and Congress. However, ‌progress was devastatingly reversed when Lincoln was assassinated shortly after that. His successor, President Andrew Johnson, immediately returned ‌‌land along the Atlantic coast to its prior Confederate owners. Johnson’s decision to rescind the order was influenced by his more lenient approach towards the Southern states and his sympathies with the South. Johnson’s actions betrayed the interests of the very Black Americans that the Union Army had liberated from bondage. The promise of “40 acres and a mule” proved empty. This pattern of hollow guarantees made to African Americans would be repeated at various points across history.

The Compensated Emancipation Act: Reparations for Whom?

While Black Americans were denied the reparations they had been promised, in April 1862, Washington, D.C. saw fit to compensate former slave owners for lost “property.” The unprecedented Compensated Emancipation Act appropriated up to $300 for each freed slave, to be paid directly to former slaveholders who submitted petitions. The total amount appropriated for these payments was $1 million, a significant sum at the time.

Far from an unforeseeable response to unfolding events, this Act reflected legislators’ paternalistic priorities to place the economic interests of white slaveowners over those they had kept in bondage. The Act went beyond compensation to include measures actively encouraging emancipated African Americans to emigrate out of the United States after securing their freedom. The conflicting impulses behind the Act would foreshadow the unreliable nature of later efforts aimed at remedying the wrongs inflicted by slavery.

This legislation marked the sole instance of the Federal government directly financing slave owners for financial losses attributed to abolition policies during the Civil War. The clear double standard at play sharply contrasts Congress’ eagerness to bail out former slave owners while resisting calls for reparations for formerly enslaved African Americans down to the present day.

The Derailed Dream of “40 Acres” and the Windfall of Western Lands

As ‌disillusioned recipients of General Sherman’s ham-fisted land redistribution policy were forced back into landlessness, the government poured resources into efforts that would greatly expand property ownership – but only for white Americans.

The Homestead Act of 1862 epitomized ‌racial disparities in economic opportunities after the Civil War. It promised 160 acres of land to any adult or intended citizen willing to settle and improve government lands for five years. This free land enabled white homesteaders to build immense wealth during the westward expansion of European settlements. By contrast, most African Americans remained purposefully excluded from the Act’s largesse through both law and violent coercion. 

The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 was intended to help freed slaves by opening up 46 million acres of land, but it was largely unsuccessful due to its repeal in 1876, with only a fraction of the land going to the few African American claimants. This contrast underscores the systemic barriers and policy reversals that have hindered efforts to provide reparations to freed Black Americans while generously supporting their white counterparts.

By the time the Homestead Act ended in 1976, over 1.6 million homestead applications had been approved, granting nearly 287 million acres spread across 30 states. This mass giveaway of land constituted a transfer of wealth so colossal that its value today would measure in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars. The Act’s role in engendering prosperity for generations of white Americans cannot be overstated. Yet it represented riches African Americans could scarcely imagine, far less claim as their own.

Hypothetical Wealth of Black Americans: The Impact of “40 Acres and a Mule

The promise of “40 acres and a mule” to newly freed slaves after the Civil War represented a significant opportunity for African Americans to build wealth and economic stability. Had this promise been kept, the landscape of American wealth distribution might have looked markedly different today.

Estimating the Economic Impact

To hypothesize the wealth of Black Americans if the “40 acres and a mule” promise had been fulfilled, we must consider several factors:

  1. Initial Land Distribution: By June 1865, 40,000 freed slaves had been allocated land, which by some estimates could be worth $640 billion today.
  2. Agricultural Prosperity: Land ownership would have allowed Black Americans to engage in agriculture,‌ leading to stable income and wealth accumulation over generations.
  1. Generational Wealth Transfer: Land and property are key sources of generational wealth. The ability to pass down assets across generations could have significantly altered the economic status of Black Americans.
  1. Economic Multiplier Effects: Land ownership could have led to related business opportunities, education, and community development, further enhancing wealth creation.

In reality, the average net worth of a Black family today is only one-tenth that of a white family. The Homestead Act and other policies provided substantial land and economic benefits to white Americans, contributing to a racial wealth gap that has persisted over centuries.

The Wage Gap and Wealth Chasm: The Act’s Contemporary Legacy

A century and a half later, the economic outcomes of these dual policies still reverberate through the persistent racial inequality pervading American society.

The average net worth of a Black family today is only one-tenth of the average white family. Behind this wealth gap lies the enduring legacy of redlined neighborhoods, housing and employment discrimination, barriers to accessing credit, and the head start in asset building afforded to white Americans through ancestral gains from government land programs.

According to projections by the Institute for Policy Studies, if current trends continue, median Black American wealth will fall to zero by 2053, while white American wealth continues expanding[4]. These forecasts attest to the compounding returns that white communities have continued to reap from the economic infrastructure laid down by policies like the Homestead Act. For Black Americans, their labor and lives were the foundations for much of early U.S. prosperity, yet few of the vaguest promises to redress their losses have materialized.

The bittersweet anniversary of Juneteenth presents a yearly reminder of how hopes can be lifted and then crushed by turns. It symbolizes both the jubilation of emancipation and the betrayal of Reconstruction’s unfulfilled promises. Of these, the failure to provide “40 acres and a mule” persists as one of the starkest examples of the country’s failure to redress the harms inflicted by slavery.

The Importance of Reparations as a Public Health Strategy

On June 19, 1865, enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas finally received news of their full emancipation, coming more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet the thralls of slavery proved difficult to escape, as newly freed people faced impoverishment, prejudice, violence, and the denial of basic civil liberties. Without assets or resources, the vestiges of forced servitude persisted through peonage and sharecropping systems.

A century and a half later, ‌health outcomes and life expectancy for Black people in America still trail stubbornly behind national averages. The lingering impacts of discrimination have also contributed to a wide range of health issues. Studies clearly link ‌chronic toxic stress and barriers to economic advancement rooted in racism to higher public health burdens from hypertension to infant mortality for Black Americans.

In the view of many experts, adopting a rehabilitative approach is a necessary public health measure. Cash reparations alone will not eliminate all racial disparities in health outcomes. But they can provide meaningful acknowledgment of historical wrongs and needed federal, state, and local funding for public health programs targeting affected communities. Reparations are increasingly recognized not as singular windfalls but as instrumental and recurring investments in overdue redress, racial equity, and social rehabilitation.

The Evanston Experiment: America’s First Reparations Program

After over a year of planning, the city of Evanston, Illinois, launched the nation’s first municipal reparations program in 2021 to address some of the devastation wrought by decades of housing discrimination against Black residents. Evanston acknowledged that historically racist housing policies, known as redlining, had long suppressed Black homeownership and the associated opportunities for wealth accumulation.

The Evanston City Council’s approved framework focuses on generating funds for current Black residents to access housing grants or mortgage assistance. By March 2023, over $1 million had already been disbursed to dozens of qualifying households. Recipients have used these reparations payments for home repairs, down payments on property purchases, and paying off mortgage interest or late penalties.

This intentionally narrow approach sidesteps thornier debates about verifying lineage to determine eligibility for direct payouts. Instead, it emphasizes using reparations to uplift those still feeling the impacts of discriminatory policies rather than waiting to make amends with the deceased victims. While modest in scale, the early successes of the Evanston experiment lend tangible credence to the efficacy of localized reparations initiatives.

Cautious Optimism as Other Cities Consider Reparations

In the wake of Evanston’s pioneering example, other municipalities nationwide have begun taking tangible steps toward reparations to rehabilitate their Black communities.

In Atlanta, city officials are formally exploring how potential reparations might take shape, from direct payments to scholarships and investments in Black communities. However, some activists argue that funds should be directed toward addressing issues like gentrification and affordable housing for Atlanta’s rapidly diminishing Black population.

In California, a first-in-the-nation Reparations Task Force is in its second year of studying the institution of slavery and its lingering harms, providing recommendations on appropriate remedies. The Task Force’s final report, expected in 2023, could pave the way for one of the country’s most extensive state reparations programs.

Despite this apparent momentum, critics argue that locality-based reparations efforts can appear piecemeal or insufficient when divorced from broader policy shifts at the state and federal levels. Reparations advocates maintain that wider-scale governmental commitments are vital to properly fund the immense remaining costs of overcoming systemic discrimination.

Promising Starts, But No Substitute for Federal Action

General Sherman’s long-reversed attempt at redistributing land ultimately withered at the federal level amid shifting political priorities after the Civil War. The persistent racial wealth divide that has widened since then cannot be meaningfully closed without coordinated federal initiatives aimed at comprehensively investing in communities impacted by centuries of exploitative policies. While local reparations experiments highlight interest in tangible payouts, they underscore rather than negate the need for national reparations programs equipped to undertake large-scale reforms.

The recent launch of municipal reparations programs gestures toward acknowledging past wrongs against Black Americans at the local level. They serve as promising reminders that even limited recognition of historical injustices can foster community rehabilitation when paired with funding and supportive bureaucratic frameworks. However, case-by-case local reconciliation measures remain an imperfect workaround to congressional inaction on passing H.R. 40. This long-stalled bill would merely establish a federal commission to study slavery and discrimination in the United States, as well as propose remedy recommendations.

Way Forward

The unfulfilled promise of “40 acres and a mule” and the generosity of the Homestead Act to white Americans underscore the double standard that has long plagued America’s racial history. Presently, the divisive notion of financial reparations elicits knee-jerk dismissiveness from those quick to blame Black communities for not overcoming the very biases government policies engineered against them. However, leaving the byproducts of state-sanctioned dehumanization wholly unaddressed continues to inflict a callous double standard. It reiterates the stale refrain that the labor of Black bodies merited centuries of extraction by the state to fuel national prosperity yet rarely entitled their descendants to communal repair or participation in what they helped build.

The tireless advocacy behind Evanston’s first-in-the-nation housing reparations program highlights that tangible reconciliation follows where political will exists to acknowledge past wrongs. Although the uneven history of American reparations has long skewed toward its ruling class, the momentum gathering behind nascent local reparations initiatives remains heartening. The policy landscape for federal action may continue to shift as understanding grows around connections between the inherited trauma of marginalization and contemporary public health inequities.

Researched and written with assistance from Perplexity AI


Written by: Tarik Moody

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