On land, poor can rise; landless, they sink
|November 28, 2007||Posted by Jeffery J. Smith under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
On land, poor can rise; landless, they sink
Forty Acres and a Gap in Wealth
We condense this op-ed from the New York Times (November 18, 2007). The writer is a professor at Harvard and author of the forthcoming In Search of Our Roots.
by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
At a conference marking the 40th anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihans infamous report on the problems of the black family, I asked the conservative scholar James Q. Wilson and the liberal scholar William Julius Wilson if ours was the generation presiding over an irreversible, self-perpetuating class divide within the African-American community.
I have to believe that this is not the case, the liberal Wilson responded with willed optimism. Why go on with this work otherwise? The conservative Wilson nodded. Yet, no one could imagine how to close the gap.
In 1965, when Moynihan published his report, suggesting that the out-of-wedlock birthrate and the number of families headed by single mothers, both about 24%, pointed to dissolution of the social fabric of the black community, black scholars and liberals dismissed it. They attacked its author as a right-wing bigot. Now wed give just about anything to have those statistics back. Today, 69% of black babies are born out of wedlock, while 45% of black households with children are headed by women.
How did this happen? As many theories flourish as pundits — from slavery and segregation to the decline of factory jobs, crack cocaine, draconian drug laws, and outsourcing. But nobody knows for sure.
I have been studying the family trees of 20 successful African-Americans, people in fields ranging from entertainment and sports (Oprah Winfrey, the track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee) to space travel and medicine (the astronaut Mae Jemison and Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon). And Ive seen an astonishing pattern: 15 of the 20 descend from at least one line of former slaves who managed to obtain property by 1920 — a time when only 25% of all African-American families owned property.
Ten years after slavery ended, Constantine Winfrey, Oprahs great-grandfather, bartered eight bales of cleaned cotton (4,000 pounds) that he picked on his own time for 80 acres of prime bottomland in Mississippi. (He also learned to read and write while picking all that cotton.)
Sometimes the government helped: Whoopi Goldbergs great-great-grandparents received their land through the Southern Homestead Act. So my family got its 40 acres and a mule, she exclaimed when I showed her the deed. Well, perhaps not the mule, but 104 acres in Florida.
It was rumored that freed slaves would receive land that had been owned by their masters. Such reforms were floated during the Civil War but never fully put into practice. Lacking such justice, weve reached the point today where, according to a study by the economist Edward N. Wolff, the median net worth of non-Hispanic black households in 2004 was only $11,800 — less than 10% that of non-Hispanic white households, $118,300.
If there is a meaningful correlation between the success of accomplished African-Americans today and their ancestors property ownership, we can only imagine how different black-white relations would be had 40 acres and a mule really been official government policy in the Reconstruction South. People who own property feel a sense of ownership in their future and their society. They study, save, work, strive and vote. And people trapped in a culture of tenancy do not.
The historical basis for the gap between the black middle class and underclass shows that ending discrimination, by itself, would not eradicate black poverty and dysfunction. We also need intervention to promulgate a middle-class ethic of success among the poor, while expanding opportunities for economic betterment.
Perhaps a bold and innovative approach to the problem of black poverty would be to look at ways to turn tenants into homeowners. Sadly, in the wake of the subprime mortgage debacle, an enormous number of houses are being repossessed. But for the black poor, real progress may come only once they have an ownership stake in American society.
JJS: The Union Army did give Confederate President Jefferson Davis plantation land to former slaves. After learning to manage the entire operation, they did quite well — until the Army returned North. Then whites took back the land — for its rent. To spread ownership, itd help to focus less on titles, more on the flow of rent. Where owners owed rent to their community, there they had little motive to hold vast acreage in abstentia; instead of hoarding the surplus output, owners had to pay it over as rent. Indeed, every jurisdiction that taxed land value — Denmark, California, Australia, Taiwan — whittled down huge estates into numerous family farms that prospered, providing the underpinning for national development. Undoubtedly, the public recovery of site rent would work today to spread property and prosperity across other borders, too, whether race or class.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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Extreme Inequality is Dangerous, Risky
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