Poverty, unemployment, home ownership, wealth – for each of these economic indicators African Americans fare worse than other racial groups. But why? During Black History Month the NAACP will delve into four major U.S. periods (Slavery, the New Deal, the Reagan Era, and the 2008 Housing Crisis) that have shaped many of African Americans’ economic realities. These stories are not of victimization – African Americans have triumphed and excelled despite centuries of exclusion and oppression. By providing this historic framework, we hope there will be more appreciation for African Americans’ economic contributions to this country; greater understanding of the grave institutional economic challenges facing African American communities; and support for policies to remedy racial economic inequities in acknowledgement that helping the minority will ultimately help the majority.
This winter, critically-acclaimed films “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln” catapulted slavery back into the public consciousness. Typically romanticized, the subject of slavery is now being discussed and explored with promising depth (e.g., brutalities of slavery or how some northerners were complicit with slavery). However, there remains little conversation around slavery as the economic institution that generated remarkable wealth for the United States (estimated 20 trillion dollars) while also creating a system affording whites economic privilege and justifying blacks’ economic oppression.
Beginning in Virginia in 1619, slavery served as the impetus for racial economic inequities. It prohibited blacks from being paid for their labor, while simultaneously creating vast amounts of wealth for its profiteers. Despite the majority of whites not owning slaves, the social, political and economic gains achieved through this system were distributed to benefit only whites (and their decedents). This division of wealth served as the foundation for the economic divide between whites and blacks.
In 1863, after Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks were far from being perceived as equal. In fact, in order to bind the nation’s wounds from the Civil War and promote national unity, whites were conferred privileged status and blacks’ social, political and economic interests were sacrificed. Racist and segregationist policies, most notably Jim Crow, were instituted to maintain the trajectory of African Americans’ exclusion from economic opportunities. Through Jim Crow, the best jobs, neighborhoods, schools and hospitals were reserved for whites, relegating African Americans to impoverished conditions only further widening economic inequities (e.g., unemployment, poverty, etc.) over generations.
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.