Reparations And Reinvestment: Contemplating The Proverbial '40 Acres And A Mule' Today

(Photo illustration by Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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By Brandi Carter

Let me start by saying that I'm a philanthropic advisor. I am not an economist, historian, sociologist or any other kind of expert in government spending, economic movements or the history of Black people in America. What I will own up to is being a history and data junkie. Consequently, I do extensive genealogical research for my family.

I've visited several nearly deserted towns once inhabited by my great-great-great fill-in-the-relations. I gain more complete pictures of their lives from historical accounts of these places, including the crimes, epidemics and economic booms my ancestors lived through. I live for facts and figures that relate my present life to the lives of those who came before me. Which traditions began with them? Which physical traits do we share? Which family issues have existed for generations? What was the purpose of their lives, and why should the existence of my ancestors matter to me today?

When I'm cooking dinner, I listen to history podcasts. One evening, I was listening to "Uncivil," one of my favorites. The episode was called "The Deed." It told the story of, the matriarch of an African American family that actually received their fabled 40 acres and a mule in 1865 and held on to it for more than 100 years, only to lose the land generations later to what I would call bureaucratic shenanigans.

A salt marsh at sunset on Sapelo Island. This coastal Georgia community is where Nettye Handy Evans' family home existed for generations. (Wade Sheldon/University of Georgia)

The fact that this family actually reaped the reward of General Sherman's Special Field Orders No. 15 was shocking. That the land helped them gain a respected place in their south Georgia community was inspiring. And, the story of how a judge sanctioned their loss of the land was heartbreaking. This land was more than a promise kept; it became the foundation of this family's financial security. Because of this land, the matriarch of the family, although not rich by anyone's standards today, had wealth in fields of acreage to pass on to future generations. This was the story of the American Dream won — and stolen.

For African Americans, holding on to the American Dream can be like trying to hold on to a butterfly. You triumphantly capture the creature and all its beauty, but to hold on to it and truly possess it feels foreign and unnatural. Struggling against being held in a way it was never intended, the butterfly, like the American Dream, never comes to rest securely in your hands. Instead, the butterfly flaps and flutters against your hands until you open them to set it free to live as it should.

Societal systems and institutions rooted in racist policies and practices make living the American Dream feel like you're in possession of something that should never have been yours to begin with. The feeling of struggling to hold on to the dream is real and is an added weight to the heavy burdens that anyone of any race carries when they dare to pursue their ambitions. So, you either fight for the foreseeable future to make it work — to make it yours — or eventually, relinquish the dream in exchange for relief from the pressure of holding on too tightly.

And for all too many Black Americans, pursuing their version of the American Dream isn't even something worth trying, because everything that they have seen and known tells them that Black people living the American Dream is as fabled as the 40 acres and a mule promised by General Sherman.


MORE BLACK VOICES FROM OUR RACE IN LA SERIES


Paralyzed by fear, they are lulled into the safe place called "good enough" to protect themselves from the heartbreak of having their hopes dashed. Too many have repeatedly witnessed Black people being robbed of the building blocks of self-sufficiency. So, to avoid the Icarus effect they discourage themselves, their children, and even other Blacks who dare to try, from flying too high for fear of getting too close to the proverbial sun.

The nullification of General Sherman's order by President Andrew Jackson taught centuries of Black people that even when we clearly articulate what we need to succeed, and find those who are willing to provide it, there is always someone with enough power and prowess to prevent upsetting the social balance that too many are too comfortable with in this nation.

Yesterday, it was Andrew Jackson and plantation owners nullifying a promise of 40 acres and a mule. Today, it's Donald Trump and an angry mob all too willing to nullify the promise of a vote that would allow greater equity, reducing the wealth gap and reforming the justice system.

So, Black Americans born in the U.S. are still waiting for their fair shot at the American Dream, and not a handout. We're waiting for the clearance to succeed or fail, without roadblocks and systems designed to make our failure more certain, or our progress considerably slower than that of our counterparts.

40 ACRES AND A MULE REIMAGINED FOR THE MODERN ERA

There is a clear and present danger requiring Black Americans to be always vigilant about guarding against threats and attacks on their livelihoods, education, property, health and class standing.

Do you wonder why Black people distrust taking the COVID-19 vaccine? Do you wonder why Black people tell their children they have to be better, faster, stronger students bathed in Black excellence and Black girl magic? Wonder why your Black coworker is such a hard shell to crack? Is she/he/they ultra-professional, well-dressed, perfectly groomed, going above and beyond on every project, and has not an ounce of time for hanging out at the water cooler or getting toasted with you and your other coworkers at happy hour? This is the reason:

The stakes are too high. There's too much on the line to risk doing or being anything that will cause lost ground or position. There are enough external forces to take care of that. Unlike Ta-Nehisi Coates, though, I'm not ready to make The Case for Reparations, but I'm ready to strongly consider them, and weigh the options.

A farmer ploughing a field with a mule, circa 1930. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I've committed to intentionally omit the term "give reparations" from my vocabulary and the remainder of this essay. Instead, I choose to say "pay reparations." Being "given reparations," in my mind, connotes a present, a gift, from an entity that has the authority to deem something or someone as deserving of rebuilding and rehabilitation.

So, if paying reparations were the answer, what would it cost, and what is it worth to us, as a nation?

Anytime that I've engaged in conversations about reparations, an immediate discussion on cost begins. It's unfortunate that the cost to the human lives of Africans and their descendants did not begin with the decision to load slaves on ships to cross the Atlantic for unknown lands, where they would be stripped of their humanity to build up a nation's wealth they wouldn't benefit from. This is a cost America is still paying today. And I wonder: Was it worth it?

But what's done is done, and today we are weighing the cost of atonement. I believe there is no adequate price for more than 400 years of dehumanizing an entire race of people, and no single generation can bear that cost. The debt is just too great.

"As a Black person, I often feel like that which is mine, good or bad, truly belongs to the collective group of Black people. My successes, my failures, and the way that I merely exist reflect something greater. I am the wildest dreams of my ancestors, making contributions to the promises left for our future."

So, instead, I focus on examining the cost of the broken promise of settling formerly enslaved families on 400,000 acres of the tillable land confiscated during the Civil War. Sherman's order promised each family 40 acres and loan of one surplus mule from the Union Army. In exchange, the men would join the army to keep the peace and sustain the freedom of newly freed Black people.

I've heard people say that Sherman's order wasn't sustainable, but I've never heard anyone say that paying former slave owners in the District of Columbia $300 ($8,000 today) for every formerly enslaved man, woman and child they had to set free was impractical, or returning the 400,000 acres of confiscated land to treasonous Southern slaveholders was nonsensical.

Yet, discussions on paying reparations to Black Americans are often reductive, dismissive and lacking any genuine effort to create a realistic vision for a place where it might actually exist. But let's be open-minded and think outside of the box as an exercise in imagining what might be possible.

America is actually no stranger to paying reparations. In the 1990s, more than 80,000 Japanese Americans received $20,000 each and a formal letter of apology for the federal government's internment of men, women and children during World War II. During the 1940s, 176 Native American tribes and bands were awarded $1.3 billion to be redistributed to the groups' individual members. The actual funds disbursed averaged a paltry $1,000 per person as most of the money was put into trusts held by the federal government.

The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 was established to give Native Hawaiians a chance at economic self-sufficiency, as their self-reliance was crushed when the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown in 1893. The Act established a land trust for Native Hawaiians that provides a 99-year lease of homestead lands from the federal government for $1 and financial assistance for home construction, home replacement, home repairs, the development of farms and ranches, and operation of water systems.

Although each of these acts of reparations have extensive and well-founded flaws and can't make up for what was lost, each is evidence that paying reparations is not beyond the realm of reason.

Arguably, the cost of reparations is so long overdue that the cost has grown exponentially. In 2015, Yes! magazine said 1865's 40 acres and a mule would be valued at nearly $6.4 trillion (adjusted for inflation). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the final two months of his life, had calculated the cost of slavery and determined it was worth him going to Washington, D.C. to address disparities created by our nation's long-standing history of policies that uplifted white America while depressing economic opportunities for for Black America.

There's a brief and little-known speech during which Dr. King insisteds: "We're coming to get our check." Such declarations are threatening to those who can't imagine how to make right the inequalities in America without the threat of a personal or financial loss of their own. Today, policies that seek to level the playing field are labeled socialist, and surely King's Poor People's Campaign bore a similar label as a way to downplay its value and validity.

Most estimates break down into payments of $150,000-$300,000 for each living descendant of those who were enslaved and disenfranchised in America. At $6.4 trillion, such reparations would be most of the $6.6 trillion in outlays, or obligations, that were in the FY 2020 federal budget. Other reparation plans estimate up to $12 trillion in payments. Yet, advocates for reparations aren't demanding multi-trillion dollar lump sum payments to Black Americans that would bankrupt our nation; no one would benefit from that. The benefit that proponents seek is a stronger nation achieved by building up Black people just as our ancestors built up the nation for more than 400 years.

MIND THE (WEALTH) GAP

As I contemplate my position on reparations, I'm clear on the fact that there's an expansive wealth gap between Black and white America. In 2016, the average net worth of a typical white American family was $171,000, 10 times that of the typical Black family. This gap wasn't created by white Americans having greater tenacity, ingenuity, drive or commitment to excellence. At the same time, the desire to close the gap isn't derived from Black Americans jealously plotting to rob white Americans of their wealth en masse. The fact is that the wealth gap has been created across generations of policies that intentionally excluded Black Americans from succeeding on our own merits. This is the wrong that I support reparations making right.

Yes! Magazine infographic by Jeff Neumann and Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn, research by Heidi Bruce and Clo Copass.

It is this generational lag in attaining wealth that the venerable management consultant firm McKinsey & Company described in a 2019 study as "a burden on Black Americans as well as the overall economy." But, what if we approached the conversation about reparations from the perspective of not just righting a wrong, but making our country stronger? How could it benefit us all? The greatest benefit of reparations that serves us all is the opportunity to close the wealth gap. It's not only a barrier for Black people, but it poses challenges to our entire economy. According to the McKinsey study, the country's GDP could be 4-6% higher by 2028 if we close the wealth gap.

The study acknowledges that the work involved is difficult because of the many components that created it: social, historical, political and institutional. But by closing the wealth gap, we can improve the self-sufficiency of Black Americans. Black businesses create new jobs for all Americans. Black homeownership generates tax revenue for cities and schools from people invested in their communities instead of from renters who only contribute to the local economy. And better opportunities ideally make for a more educated population.

While reparations aren't the only way to close the wealth gap, it's one way that can expedite the turning of the tide. Although the costs of paying for reparations is shouldered in part by people who are adamant about their lack of responsibility to atone for the legacy of their ancestors, the truth is that Black people continue living with that damaging legacy. So, our entire society is greatly harmed, both socially and economically, by the continued resistance to make right the wrongs we all inherited.

The truth is that every time Black Americans have been held back, robbed of opportunities to live the American Dream, America has deprived itself of Black excellence and the possibility of being a truly exceptional nation.

In the wake of George Floyd's death, I had the distinct honor of co-facilitating a nine-week virtual workshop on racial reconciliation open to all, but mostly attended by white and Latina women. We experienced the power of working through the following steps:

  1. becoming aware
  2. acknowledging and lamenting what we now know as truth
  3. facing our guilt and shame
  4. confessing our harmful thoughts and behaviors
  5. forgiving ourselves and others
  6. repenting
  7. making reparations
  8. restoring what was lost, making the harmed party whole
  9. reproducing this process out in the world

Since last May, Americans have been going through this process unknowingly. Some are stuck at step one, while others are moving to step four. But most are stuck somewhere in between. We have to continue to move forward, to make progress, to complete the final, more challenging stages of forgiving, repenting and making reparations before we can be the country we proclaim to be, the beacon to the world that reproduces goodness and brings hope for humanity to areas where it is lacking.

But are reparations a price you are willing to pay for the promise of America to be fulfilled?


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Brandi Tanille Carter was born in Los Angeles, to parents who arrived in L.A. from Texas and Louisiana as a result of the Great Migration. From 1994-2004, she lived in Atlanta, where she completed her undergraduate studies at Clark Atlanta University and began her 20-year career in philanthropy. Brandi returned to Los Angeles in 2004 where she continued to build her career. Today, she is the founder and CEO of The Fruitful Company, which engages people of color in charitable giving so that the full spectrum of American philanthropists feel included and honored for their generosity.