Black People Own Less of the U.S. than 100 Years Ago. A ‘Black Commons’ Could Help Reverse the Trend

Julian Agyeman and Kofi Boone July 8, 2020

This photo shows a group of people who had escaped slavery gathered on a former plantation. After Federal troops occupied the plantation, these former slaves began to harvest and gin cotton for their own profit.

Under­ly­ing the recent unrest sweep­ing U.S. cities over police bru­tal­i­ty is a fun­da­men­tal inequity in wealth, land and pow­er that has cir­cum­scribed black lives since the end of slav­ery in the U.S.

The 40 acres and a mule” promised to for­mer­ly enslaved Africans nev­er came to pass. There was no redis­tri­b­u­tion of land, no repa­ra­tions for the wealth extract­ed from stolen land by stolen labor.

June 19 is cel­e­brat­ed by black Amer­i­cans as June­teenth, mark­ing the date in 1865 that for­mer slaves were informed of their free­dom, albeit two years after the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion. Com­ing this year at a time of protest over the con­tin­ued police killing of black peo­ple, it pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty to look back at how black Amer­i­cans were deprived of land own­er­ship and the eco­nom­ic pow­er that it brings. An expand­ed con­cept of the black com­mons” – based on shared eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al and dig­i­tal resources as well as land – could act as one means of redress. As pro­fes­sors in urban plan­ning and land­scape archi­tec­ture, our research sug­gests that such a con­cept could be a part of undo­ing the racist lega­cy of chat­tel slav­ery by encour­ag­ing eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and cre­at­ing com­mu­nal wealth.

Land grab

The pro­por­tion of the Unit­ed States under black own­er­ship has actu­al­ly shrunk over the last 100 years or so.

At their peak in 1910, African Amer­i­can farm­ers made up around 14% of all U.S. farm­ers, own­ing 16 to 19 mil­lion acres of land. By 2012, black Amer­i­cans rep­re­sent­ed just 1.6% of the farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty, own­ing 3.6 mil­lion acres of land. Anoth­er study shows a 98% decline in black farm­ers between 1920, and 1997. This con­trasts sharply with an increase in acres owned by white farm­ers over the same period.

In 1998 report, the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture ascribed this decline to a long and well-doc­u­ment­ed” his­to­ry of dis­crim­i­na­tion against black farm­ers, rang­ing from New Deal and USDA dis­crim­i­na­to­ry prac­tices dat­ing from the 1930s to 1950s-era exclu­sion from legal, title and loan resources.

Dis­crim­i­na­to­ry prac­tices have also affect­ed who owns prop­er­ty as well as land. In 2017, the racial home­own­er­ship gap was at its high­est lev­el for 50 years, with 79.1% of white Amer­i­cans own­ing a home com­pared to 41.8% of black Amer­i­cans. This gap is even larg­er than it was when racist hous­ing prac­tices such as redlin­ing, which denied black res­i­dents mort­gages to buy, or loans to ren­o­vate, prop­er­ty were legal.

The lack of own­er­ship is cru­cial to under­stand­ing the crip­pling eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ty that has hol­lowed out the black mid­dle class and con­tin­ues to plague black Amer­i­ca – mak­ing it hard­er to accrue wealth and pass it on to future generations.

A 2017 report found that the medi­an net worth for non-immi­grant black Amer­i­can house­holds in the greater Boston region was just US$8, but for whites it was $247,500. This was due to gen­er­al hous­ing and lend­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion through restric­tive covenants, redlin­ing and oth­er lend­ing practices.”

Nation­al­ly, between 1983 and 2013, medi­an black house­hold wealth decreased by 75% to $1,700 while medi­an white house­hold wealth increased 14% to $116,800.

Free­dom farms

Land own­er­ship today could look very dif­fer­ent. The idea of col­lec­tive own­er­ship has a long his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States. Even dur­ing slav­ery, a piece of ground was grant­ed by slave mas­ters for enslaved African sub­sis­tence farm­ing. The Jamaican social the­o­rist Sylvia Wyn­ter called this land the plot.”

Wyn­ter has explained how that these parcels of land were trans­formed into com­mu­nal areas where slaves could estab­lish their own social order, sus­tain tra­di­tion­al African folk­lore and food­ways – grow­ing yams, cas­sa­va and sweet pota­toes. Plots were often called yam grounds,” so impor­tant was this sta­ple food.

The con­nec­tion between food, land, pow­er and cul­tur­al sur­vival was sub­ver­sive in its nature. By appro­pri­at­ing phys­i­cal space to sup­port col­lec­tive grow­ing prac­tices with­in the bru­tal con­straints of slav­ery, black peo­ple also demon­strat­ed the need for com­mon, shared men­tal space to enable their sur­vival and resis­tance. Herbal­ism, med­i­cine and mid­wifery, and oth­er African Amer­i­can heal­ing prac­tices were seen as acts of resis­tance that were inti­mate­ly tied to reli­gion and com­mu­ni­ty,” accord­ing to his­to­ri­an Shar­la M. Fett.

With the end of slav­ery, these plots disappeared.

The prin­ci­ples of col­lec­tive land own­er­ship evolved in post-slav­ery black Amer­i­ca. It was cen­tral to civ­il rights orga­niz­er Fan­nie Lou Hamer’s Free­dom Farms, a coop­er­a­tive mod­el designed to deliv­er eco­nom­ic jus­tice to the poor­est black farm­ers in the Amer­i­can South.

In Hamer’s view, the fight for jus­tice in the face of oppres­sion required a mea­sure of inde­pen­dence that could be achieved through own­ing land and pro­vid­ing resources for the community.

This idea of a black com­mons as a means of eco­nom­ic empow­er­ment formed a focus of W.E.B. DuBois’ 1907 Eco­nom­ic Co-oper­a­tion Among Negro Amer­i­cans.” DuBois believed that the extreme seg­re­ga­tion of the Jim Crow era made it nec­es­sary to ground eco­nom­ic empow­er­ment in the cul­tur­al bonds between black peo­ple and that this could be achieved through coop­er­a­tive ownership.

Cred­it unions and co-ops

The accu­mu­la­tion of wealth was not the only desired con­se­quence of a black commons.

In 1967, social crit­ic Harold Cruse argued for a new insti­tu­tion­al­ism” that would cre­ate a new dynam­ic syn­the­sis of pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics, and cul­ture.” In his view, eco­nom­ic ven­tures need­ed to be ground­ed in the greater aspi­ra­tions of black com­mu­ni­ties – polit­i­cal­ly, cul­tur­al­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly. This could be achieved through a black commons.

As the polit­i­cal econ­o­mist Jes­si­ca Gor­don Nem­b­hard has not­ed in ref­er­ence to black cred­it unions and mutu­al aid funds, African Amer­i­cans, as well as oth­er peo­ple of col­or and low-income peo­ple, have ben­e­fit­ed great­ly from coop­er­a­tive own­er­ship and demo­c­ra­t­ic eco­nom­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion through­out the nation’s history.”

The non­prof­it Schu­mach­er Cen­ter for a New Eco­nom­ics is work­ing to reju­ve­nate the idea of black com­mons. In a 2018 state­ment, the cen­ter pro­posed to adopt a com­mu­ni­ty land trust struc­ture to serve as a nation­al vehi­cle to amass pur­chased and gift­ed lands in a black com­mons with the spe­cif­ic pur­pose of facil­i­tat­ing low-cost access for black Amer­i­cans hith­er­to with­out such access.”

Mean­while, shared equi­ty hous­ing schemes and com­mu­ni­ty land trusts con­tin­ue to grow, help­ing black fam­i­lies own prop­er­ty, advance racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice and mit­i­gate dis­place­ment result­ing from gentrification.

Dig­i­tal commons

The dis­pro­por­tion­ate effects of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic and unrest over police bru­tal­i­ty have high­light­ed deeply embed­ded struc­tur­al racism. Orga­ni­za­tions such as Black Lives Mat­ter and the Move­ment for Black Lives are demon­strat­ing a renewed vig­or around col­lec­tive action and a blue­print for how this can be achieved in a dig­i­tal age. At the same time, black Amer­i­cans are also forg­ing a cul­tur­al com­mons through events such as DJ D‑Nice’s Club Quar­an­tine – a huge­ly pop­u­lar online dance par­ty. Club Quarantine’s suc­cess indi­cates the poten­tial for using online plat­forms to facil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ty build­ing, point­ing toward future eco­nom­ic cooperation.

That’s what orga­ni­za­tions like Urban Patch are try­ing to do. The non­prof­it group uses crowd­sourced fund­ing to build com­mu­ni­ty spaces in inner city areas of Indi­anapo­lis and encour­age col­lec­tive eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment that echoes the black com­mons of years past.

The long his­to­ry of racism in the Unit­ed States has held back black Amer­i­cans for gen­er­a­tions. But the cur­rent soul search­ing over this lega­cy is also an unri­valed oppor­tu­ni­ty to look again at the idea of col­lec­tive black action and own­er­ship, using it to cre­ate a com­mu­ni­ty and econ­o­my that goes beyond just own­er­ship of land for wealth’s sake.

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

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