The Ideal of America

“40 Acres and a Lie”

Most of us have heard of “40 Acres and a Mule” that were promised to enslaved people.  General William Sherman signed Special Field Order No. 15 issued Jan 16, 1865 that allocated 400,000 acres of confiscated Confederate land to Black families on the coast from South Carolina to Florida.  Additionally, some families were to receive mules left over from the war, hence 40 acres and a mule. 

After Lincoln was assassinated, Jackson reversed the military order granting the deeds and the states confiscated the land the Black families had already worked and returned it to plantation owners who were also paid for the loss of their “property” i.e. the enslaved Black people.

“40 Acres and a Lie,” a new report from Reveal and Mother Jones has outlined more than 1,200 families who were granted the deeds to land that later was stolen. One doesn’t need to think too hard to imagine the value of that property along the Florida to South Carolina coast today.  

But those very enslaved people who had produced the wealth of this country without payment for 400 years received nothing. The wealth of America from north (trade, shipping) to south (agriculture) was built on the backs of enslaved people. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports. The enslaved people themselves were the greatest wealth upon which loans were taken, insurance written, and taxes paid. In 1860, more millionaires per capita lived in the Mississippi valley than anywhere else. African Americans are to this day the only group of people harmed by the U.S. that have never been compensated.

Blacks have not been idle in demanding their due. 

In 1783, the freedwoman Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations. She was granted a pension of 15 pounds and 12 shillings, to be paid out of the estate of Isaac Royall.

In 1894 a bill introduced in the Senate would have granted direct payments of $500 to all the formerly enslaved with monthly pensions.  It did not pass. After reconstruction was abandoned, the issue of reparations didn’t re-surface until the 1960s civil rights movement. Rep. Conyers Jr. introduced a bill for the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act” every year from 1989 to 2017.  We study everything from the sex life of a mosquito to the impact of cows farting, but we refuse to study reparations.

In 1999, African-American lawyer Randall Robinson wrote that America’s history of race riots, lynching, and institutional discrimination have “resulted in $1.4 trillion in losses for African Americans.”  Other estimates to restore Blacks to the economic position they should have if slavery and discrimination had not existed range up to $17.1 trillion.

Tracie McMillan in a new memoir, The White Bonus, estimates that the cash value of institutional racism that has benefited her totals $371,934.30 – so far.

Reparations for those wronged by the U.S. is not new.  

The U.S. has paid reparations to the Japanese, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians for land seizures, massacres, and police brutality.  In 1990, after the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, Japanese in CA received $20,000 checks. The main point was the admission of a wrongdoing and taking steps to redress it.  

In 1946, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission, a body designed to hear historic grievances and compensate tribes for lost territories. It awarded about $1.3 billion to 176 tribes and bands. An apology did not come until 2009 inside a defense spending bill that said the U.S. apologized for the “many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.”  Note it’s “citizens” not the government who did the wrong. This is a recurring theme in other apologies.

After the U.S. overthrew the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1893, they established in 1920 a land trust for Native Hawaiians to lease homesteads on their own native land for 99 years for $1. The apology was a century in coming 1993.  Despite the ‘trust,” large pieces of the land were set aside for military and government purposes that continue today. Over the years, lawsuits and legislative acts created restrictions and protections on that land and extended the time period 40 years. Some of the land is a military base until 2029. The trust status, revenues, inventory, and future of the land remains in dispute.

Some individual acts have received compensation e.g. the Tuskegee Experiment from 1932-1972 in which 600 black men were deliberately left untreated for syphilis to study its progression.  After a class-action lawsuit settled in 1974, the men were awarded $10 million, and the United States promised to provide healthcare and burial services. The apology took until 1997.

The Tuskegee Experiment is remembered today by Blacks, particularly men, who refuse to go to doctors and distrust vaccines and medical care. In June 2024 in Prescott, AZ a Black man talked about having seven strokes some years ago and how he has done well in his recovery. The medication they gave him when he was discharged –  Aspirin. The white lawyer sitting next to me was flabbergasted. He had been prescribed Eliquis as a blood thinner because of his age and this Black man with seven strokes was only given Aspirin.

Given the failure of the federal government, some cities and states have taken action. Florida paid reparations to the survivors of the Rosewood Massacre in 1923. Chicago created a fund for survivors of police brutality aimed at Black men during the 1970s and 1980s. But Tulsa has yet to pay the survivors of the Greenwood Massacre. The court recently denied the cases of the two surviving victims. Massive Black wealth was lost in that riot by Tulsa citizens and law enforcement. The victims have never been compensated. Insurance policies refused to pay because it was a “riot.”  Whites attacked Blacks and even dropped bombs from the air.  They burned down a 35 square block area of homes and 242 Black-owned and operated businesses and murdered up to 300 Blacks. No one has ever been held accountable.  

Other cities that have taken some action including Asheville, North Carolina; Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Stockton, and Palm Springs, CA; Denver, Co;  and Tullahassee, OK.   Others have made promises including Providence, Rhode Island; Austin, Texas; Durham, North Carolina; Kansas City, Kansas; St. Paul, Minnesota; Detroit, Mi; and Amherst Town Council, Ma. 

New York State signed legislation in Dec. 2023 to create a new commission to study reparations and racial justice. In February 2024, nine people were appointed to the commission. On June 29, 2023, the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans issued its final report to the California Legislature. Implementation is ongoing.  In Illinois, the African Descent-Citizens Reparations Commission was established by statute in 2022 and has made two annual reports. 

Theft of Black Property was/is common. 

The Reveal project is not the only one to find land theft. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.” Horses were taken and sharecroppers were cheated. The AP called it armed robbery under law. In Chicago, Blacks were cheated out of their homes by various means including redlining, loan refusal, and buying “on contract.” These practices are outlined in the book The Color of Law:  A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein, 2017.  Rothstein and his daughter followed up with Just Action:  How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law, 2020.  The books also cover how urban renewal was used to destroy established Black neighborhoods and how freeway construction was used to separate Black and white neighborhoods.  Ample evidence exists of these practices and how they continue today. 

In 2024, the Arizona state legislature passed a bill to allow homeowners to disavow the racially restrictive covenants on their own property.  In 2020, the legislature had passed a bill telling the 15 counties to file documents disavowing the restrictions.  It was not done until 2022.   

It didn’t just happen in the south either. In 1924, CA used eminent domain to seize prime oceanfront property from a Black family who had purchased it in 1912 and built a seaside resort for Blacks. After the county seized it and evicted the Black family, they left it undeveloped for 30 years. Today it houses the Los Angeles Lifeguard Training Center. In 2010, the Los Angeles County Commission returned it to the family’s descendants. The owner announced he would sell it back to the county for $20 million.

Evanston, Illinois has begun the payment of reparations. 

However, right on cue, six people in Evanston sued in May 2024. They claim that the program violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment to use race as the determinant of who gets the $24,000 payments. Race was the determiner of who was enslaved. But now those not enslaved, claim that race cannot be used to correct that wrong.

The Supreme Court has over the last several years attempted to destroy the meaning of the Civil War Amendments (amendments 13th – 15th) by claiming they meant equality for all people not just formerly enslaved people. But white men did not need an amendment to be guaranteed equal protection or voting rights or the right not to be enslaved. It was the formerly enslaved who needed that and for whom a war was fought, and the amendments were passed. The intent was to change the constitution that had originally tolerated slavery to a constitution that did not and one that lived up to its rhetoric that “all men are created equal.” (I don’t say women because they still couldn’t vote and didn’t have legal rights.)

But these white litigants in Evanston want their $25,000 too. Plantation owners who lost their enslaved peoples after the war were paid. So the litigants should have to prove that they have no lineage from any plantation owner who was paid. Because if they do, then they already got their payment. Further white people got their payment through the GI Bill that Black military members were denied, though the subsidized housing developments where Blacks could not live, and through the state subsidized superior education that Blacks could not participate in.  But, the Evanston litigants want more.

The payments in Evanston are directly tied to remedying housing discrimination in Evanston from 1919 to 1969. White people did not suffer from housing discrimination based on their color then or now. But the plaintiffs argued that the people receiving the monies should prove that they were directly discriminated against. 

History is the proof.  

Dozens of books have been written about red-lining and the involvement of state and federal agencies; about the subdivisions that were built with specific provisos that no Blacks could buy;  about how the FHA refused to loan to Blacks;  about how freeway design was used to separate Black from white areas of town; about how assessments on property were and still are used to lower the value of the Black property but zoning used to keep their property taxes high, about the predatory lending during the Great Recession and on and on. In my neighborhood, the freeway was drawn 3 blocks below McDowell to separate Garfield then considered a ghetto, now a historic neighborhood. This is why some politicians don’t want us to learn history.

Though the G.I. bill was federal, local authorities implemented it. Because of racially restrictive housing covenants and redlining, Blacks were not able to use the federal benefits. While white soldiers could send themselves and their children to college, Blacks were not allowed into the institutions.  

The Social Security structure left out two key working groups – domestics and farm workers. That effectively excluded 60 percent of Blacks across the U.S. and 75 percent in southern states who worked in these occupations. Thus they were not allowed to build any reserve for old age. The chart below shows that today Black women must work until they are 78 to earn what a white man does at 60. It’s even worse for Latinas and Native Americans.

The 1862 Homestead Act allowed only white farmers to obtain ownership of land by farming it. In 2010 the Department of Justice and USDA settled a lawsuit by the Black Farmers Association for discrimination in the farm loan program. Fighting is still going on about payments that have to be appropriated by Congress. 

Convict leasing prohibited Blacks from working paid jobs as they were falsely arrested, convicted, and sold to companies needing cheap labor. The money then went to the prison and the state. The same goes on today with for-profit prisons.  

But according to the white litigants, the government in Evanston can show no compelling state interest in remedying discrimination. They said it out loud. To argue that ending discrimination is not a compelling state interest is to say that the Constitution is a piece of toilet paper. The entire premise of the U.S. is that all people are created equal at least under the law. That was the revolutionary statement made in 1776 along with the fact that no god determined the rights of the citizens, but decisions were made by “we the people.”  To deny that premise is to deny the founding, to deny the Civil War, to deny the Civil War amendments, to deny the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote, and to deny the 28th amendment that gave women equality under the law. It is a statement that we should be and stay a segregated and unequal country. It is profoundly un-American. 

Whites cannot pretend they don’t know.

The excuse that we white people don’t know about the wrongs done and being done to Blacks is false. Jane Elliott does a widely known exercise where she asks every white person in the room who would be happy to receive the same treatment as Blacks do to stand.  No one stands.  Her point is – we know. We don’t want it to be done to us. Then why do we allow it to be done to others?

In a story on NPR in July 2024, they reported that a group of economic (I think) students were asked how much money they would take to become Black for the rest of their lives.  The answer was $1 million a year. The students thought that amount would make up for the discrimination they would experience in the economy, housing, health care etc. We know.

What to do?

I am not ashamed of myself as a white person. I wasn’t there; I didn’t do it. I would be ashamed of myself if I didn’t take any action to correct the wrong.  But I am ashamed of my country that continues to refuse to admit its mistakes, make recompense, and move on. Germany has done a good job of this by requiring every child to learn about the Holocaust in elementary school, erecting monuments to the victims not the perpetrators, and passing legislation to prohibit people from denying the facts. 

The U.S. is doing just the opposite – seeking to eliminate education about accurate history, maintaining monuments to the supporters of slavery, and prohibiting citizens from speaking the truth. I was once fired from the Maricopa County attorney’s office after I was asked if I was suggesting (in a leaked document) that the office was racist. I said absolutely not, I was not suggesting that at all – I was saying that it was a fact. I didn’t want to work there anyhow!

There are still Nazi’s in Germany as there will be racists in the U.S. But the best antiseptic is light – turn it on and watch the cockroach’s scurry. We must be brave enough to acknowledge our mistakes and courageous enough to take effective steps to fix the lasting damage. The Kerner Commission in 1968 said that if we continue the path we are on, we will have two Americas – one Black and one white. And so we did and here we are. W.E.B. Du Bois said that the color line will be the question of the 20th century. We are now in the 21stcentury and the question is, the elephant in the room is, the looming injustice is  – still the color line. We must eradicate it if we are to have any hope of reaching the ideal of America.

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