Coupled with vast unemployment and poverty, millions of African Americans were also falsely imprisoned and sold as laborers. From the end of Reconstruction until WWI, falsely imprisoned blacks were leased to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and corporations looking for abundant, cheap labor. In addition, fear, intimidation and even death (ownership was one of the primary causes for lynching) were employed against blacks for attempting to secure any type of socioeconomic mobility for themselves and their families. This country was evolving into a world-class economic superpower from the capital generated from slavery and Jim Crow policies and any accumulation of wealth by blacks that decreased the labor force would not be tolerated.
For decades to follow, African Americans continued to be excluded from wealth and opportunity, and their exclusion would only continue with the administration of the New Deal – the greatest expansion of the American middle class in history.
Our country has made tremendous progress, which is evident with the inauguration of President Barack Obama into his second term. However, the racial wounds and vestiges of centuries of institutional racism and economic oppression remain. In 1865, just after Emancipation, African Americans owned .05% of the nation’s wealth; by 1990 African Americans only owned 1% percent. If wealth is the indicator by which we measure a person, a family, and a community’s economic security, then this stark disparity in wealth gives us insight into why African American communities continue to struggle.
We cannot achieve economic parity until we work to advance policy that explicitly includes African Americans and tackles the centuries of racial economic exclusion. “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln” have opened the door to having a thoughtful and honest conversation around slavery. Now, we must keep that door open, acknowledge slavery’s economic impacts and discuss real solutions to closing the racial economic divide.