In one of the final essays in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, Trymaine Lee writes that “A vast wealth gap, driven by segregation, redlining, evictions and exclusion, separates black and white America.”
Again I want to highlight a few quotes that struck me.
The period that followed the Civil War was one of economic terror and wealth-stripping that has left black people at lasting economic disadvantage. (Lee)
One goal that I may or may not achieve by spending extra time on these articles is to (maybe) have a better grip on the words that might help me if/when I dare to speak about the challenges we face. I have more frequently used the word terrorism to describe the events that took place during the period after reconstruction, but it doesn’t fully encompass what happened. Yes, there was violence, the kind used to intimidate, bully, and degrade human beings, and there was murder, torture, and truly twisted sick events that make one question the humanity of the perpetrators. But also/in addition/sometimes simultaneously there was this: economic terror and wealth-stripping.
Lee touches on some of these acts of terror as well as data on the lasting impact in terms of wealth gaps. He even references the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (aka violent white supremacist coup), which took place in my home state, as one example of the systematic disruption and displacement (and murder and terror) that affected the ability of the Black community to thrive.
He points out that government programs designed to help people originally excluded most African Americans: Social Security did not cover agricultural laborers or domestic workers (which I have heard before but still find mind-boggling), the Home Owners Loan Corporation helped the housing market but excluded Black neighborhoods, and the G.I. bill was administered in a way to limit support for African Americans.
I would like to highlight this quote by William A. Darity Jr., a professor of public policy and African-American studies at Duke University:
“The major way in which people have an opportunity to accumulate wealth is contingent on the wealth positions of their parents and their grandparents,” Darity says. “To the extent that blacks have the capacity to accumulate wealth, we have not had the ability to transfer the same kinds of resources across generations.” (Darity as quoted by Lee)
I wrote earlier about how the 1619 Project aims to make visible our actual history, rather than the sanitized, self-serving fairy tales that have been proffered as substitutes within our culture. In this context, I want to connect with a conversation between Sam Sanders “It’s Been A Minute,” and author Malcolm Gladwell:
I read a paper – an article – an essay written by a historian at Chicago named Charles Payne, and it was called “The Whole United States Is Southern!” And it is and remains one of the single most brilliant things I’ve ever read. And Payne is talking about the kind of Southern – the white Southern project in the era of the civil rights movement. In response to it was to shift the frame from a discussion about institutions and practices and laws to a discussion about people…
SANDERS: And the heart.
GLADWELL: The heart.
SANDERS: Are you racist?
GLADWELL: …To personalize it.
SANDERS: Where’s your racist bone?
GLADWELL: Yes – to say that we can end racism if only we all got along and we were all – if our hearts were pure, and we tried really hard. That was their response to the kind of broader argument that was making. And Payne’s essay is all about how that side won, that they managed to transform the debate in this country about racism from one in which we were considering these larger structural issues to one where we were just personalizing everything
One of the fairy tales used to cultivate inaction and the illusion of powerlessness in the face of grave injustices is the idea that it all comes down to individual choices. Indeed, the same strategy is being used successfully to delay the kind of sweeping reforms necessary to address climate change.
Sure, it is good to recycle. It is good to be against racism. It is good to make wise choices. But when the systems and structures are designed to impoverish one group of people to the advantage of another, we must interrogate and reject those systems. As individuals, we are all fallible. But together as a part of the larger democracy, we can and must do better.