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  • Writer's pictureJeff James

Forks in the racial road

It may sound dramatic to some, but the United States is facing another major decision in its history on November 3, 2020. It's far more important a typical presidential election. These historic forks in the road come every few generations. The wisdom and character by which the country and our leaders make these decisions have historically charted a course towards major leaps forward in realizing the promises in our founding documents (Civil rights legislation of the 1960s, women's suffrage, etc.), or heart-breaking topples backward (the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Dread Scott decision, the Indian Removal Act, the failure to follow through on Reconstruction, and too many others to name).

In Chapter 5 "We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident—For Some of Us" of my new book Giving Up Whiteness: One Man's Journey, I share some of the frustrating failures that the United States has experienced when coming to these important forks. To be sure, there are times we've made the right move, as mentioned. Unfortunately those leaps forward to have been few and far between, and they've taken far too long to make. However, with only a little over 50 years between us and the legal apartheid separation of races in our country, perhaps the step backward we've been witnessing for the past 4-5 years can slingshot us towards another major leap forward in civil and human rights.

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 5:

Federal protections and investments of the Reconstruction Era were completely abandoned in 1877. These protections had included voting rights for former enslaved people, which led to such stunning milestones as the first African American to serve in the US Senate, Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi, in 1870. (Imagine the shock and horror of the Confederates at that development.) At that point it became open season on African Americans. Blackmon documents in vivid detail how the highly creative officials in the South—many of them recent Rebel leaders allowed back in the leadership saddle—began to leverage the judicial system to effectively re-enslave thousands of the recently emancipated people. Shaken by their loss and desperate to regain power, a collective of law enforcement officials, judges, and corporate kingpins devised elaborate collaborations. For example, through simple nuisance laws such as vagrancy, the local sheriff would round up recently freed black citizens, send them to jail, and rent them out to companies and landowners. This essentially re-enslaved black people all over again. As long as their scheme was “lawful,” white powerbrokers were free to implement it as they pleased, especially after the hated Northern “carpetbaggers” left the region after Reconstruction. In addition to that thirteen trillion dollars of free slave labor in the antebellum South, someone needs to calculate the value of the additional nine decades of unpaid labor these work crews of re-enslaved African Americans provided, both to the resurgent Southern economy and the Northern bankers and brokers who benefited from this practice well into the twentieth century.
This brings us to our next fork in the road, one in which our country yet again chose a path of white centricity. Before I began my research into giving up whiteness, I was quite aware of affirmative action as a strategy applied by the federal government during my generation, in an attempt to address inequities and injustices against people of color caused by prior discriminatory hiring practices across the private and public sectors. But I had no understanding of the scale of earlier affirmative action programs applied only to white people. These programs had been in place for decades between the Civil War and the civil rights era and gave people with my ancestry a head start. This form of affirmative action didn’t have anything to do with righting past wrongs; it was about rewarding and supporting white veterans and advancing white citizens’ economic prospects in the growing country. When you understand how persistently African American citizens, in particular, were left out of these prosperity-building programs, it’s extremely clear that it wasn’t just slavery that had held African Americans in bondage. The force of the United States government continued to elevate and invest specifically in white citizens and squeeze out citizens of color—up to and continuing through my lifetime.
The scope and scale of this historic investment in white upward mobility is astonishing, and I felt embarrassed for not knowing the full extent of my country’s ongoing official race-based practices and policies. For example, beginning around the Civil War and continuing all the through way the 1970s, the United States gave away huge tracts of land to individual citizens through the Homestead Act, primarily for the purposes of farming. Between 1862 and 1934, more than 270 million acres of land (basically the size of California and Texas combined, and yes, primarily land taken from Native Americans) were divided into 1.6 million individual homesteads and given away for the price of a small processing fee. Through a combination of racist approaches to implementing the policy and bureaucratic obstacles that made it impractical for many black citizens to complete the process, only a paltry four to five thousand black families (0.3 percent of total grants) received any of this largesse.
Remember, at this time in US history, land was the key form of wealth. Such a head start for so many white families is a fundamental historic reason why the average household net worth—a measure of all assets including savings, investments, homes, and real estate—of a white family to this day is ten times that of an African American family of similar education level. It’s estimated that over forty-six million white families in this country—around half of all white families—can trace their roots back to a Homestead Act land recipient.[i] Today, one in seven white families are millionaires, a number that has doubled in the past twenty-five years, while only one in fifty black families has reached that status.[ii]

[i] Merritt, Keri L. Land and the roots of african-american poverty. in Aeon Media Group. New York, NY, Available from (accessed September 7, 2018). [ii] Survey of consumer finances (SCF). in Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Washington, DC, 2018 Available from (accessed July 29, 2018). Jan, Tracy. 1 in 7 white families are now millionaires. for black families, it’s 1 in 50. . in The Washington Post. Washington, DC, 2017 Available from (accessed December 2, 2018).

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