“The Home is the Social Defence of Liberty
and the Homestead is the Economic Defence of the Home.” - Fr. Vincent McNabb
“When people lack jobs, opportunity, and ownership of property
they have little or no stake in their communities.” - Jack Kemp
"Our land reform programme helps redress the injustices of apartheid.
It fosters national reconciliation and stability.
It also underpins economic growth
and improves household welfare and food security.” - Nelson Mandela
Racial justice and reparations for the previous harm of slavery to African Americans is an extremely divisive issue in America. This vile system has been called America’s “original sin” by many and taints any and all discourse about racial equality, opportunity, or oppression. Instead of looking at “Should we have reparations?” I propose to look at the question of “What form should reparations take?”
Most, if not all, proposals for reparations rely primarily on monetary transfers, creation of museums/cultural centers on the history of slavery, or endowments for education. While there are merits for each of these ideas, they miss some of the fundamental “first things” about what it means to help a community raise itself up; namely access to and control of housing, food, fuel, and water.
Slavery, racist property laws, and racist policies such as red-lining all have contributed to deprive African Americans of the opportunities given to white Americans to have a free and independent claim to land and resources. In short if a proposal for true reparations is to be made it needs to be in the form of redistributing land and the resources provided by God to a community that has been forcefully stripped of their share through brute violence, active discrimination, and disinterested neglect.
This is not a new idea, Gen. Sherman during his “March to the Sea” promised some freed slave families “40 acers and a mule” as a means to rehabilitate the devastation caused by the war to Southern agriculture and to relocate freed slaves known as “contrabands” who had been displaced. Throughout Reconstruction there was some effort made to enact land reform to break the dependency of the newly freed slaves from the old landowners, such as the 1866 Southern Homestead Act, but this was done in a haphazard and ineffectual manner until finally being repealed in 1876 under pressure from resurgent white supremacists.
The idea of granting people government land through homesteading or breaking up large landed estates through land reform is an ancient policy used throughout the world through much of history with various degrees of success. The 1850 Donation Land Claim Act which spurred the settlement of Oregon (deliberately excluding non-white settlers), and the famous 1862 Homestead Act are both incredibly powerful and successful examples of this.
“Throughout Reconstruction there was effort made to break the dependency of newly freed slaves from the old landowners, but this was repealed in 1876 under pressure from resurgent white supremacists.”
Cash payments without addressing the underlying first things will result in large amounts of capital immediately leaving the targeted community as they are forced to rent out the necessities of their existence. The spending patterns of the recently passed COVID stimulus checks are a perfect example of this as the vast majority of people spent their money on food and rent payments since they lacked ownership of the land and resources necessary to provide them on their own.
Creating museums of the past might make for interesting pilgrimage sites for the wealthy elites of society to ritually cleanse themselves of guilt and the stain of secular sin. But they do little if anything to address the material imbalances and decrepitude that too many of our fellow brothers and sisters are confined to.
Investments into education make some effort to address long-term imbalances but again, without addressing control over the basics of human life, the vast majority of the community will be left behind as they struggle to maintain what they have while what capital that is invested will be transferred to those lucky few who are employed by the education system. Even worse, as evidenced by roughly 100 years of American educational history as of this writing, vast numbers of the graduates and beneficiaries of such educational advancement will not return to their deprived communities of birth but will instead flee to greener pastures. As students graduate colleges, burdened by debt, they find themselves under immense pressure to find the highest paying jobs possible to dig themselves out of their financial hole, which means seeking out the wealthiest parts of the country rather than being able to go back and help improve poorer ones.
“Vast numbers of the graduates and beneficiaries of such educational advancement will not return to their deprived communities of birth but will instead flee to greener pastures.”
But is widescale resettlement and population displacement even possible with a traditional homesteading or land reform policy? Where should the land be considered for redistribution? How can we ensure that this will partially heal the racial strife ongoing or to address the need of true justice towards a historical wrong?
Large scale resettlement is unnecessary since the land in question wouldn’t be in one location, indeed the land that can be redistributed is scattered throughout the country. I’m talking here of vacant lots, condemned properties, land confiscated through failure to pay taxes, etc. In every city and in every state of the Union there are huge numbers of properties that are being kept in a legal limbo being left unproductive and empty. Instead of leaving these factories and stores abandoned, these houses empty, and these fields fallow we should instead use this land as the foundations for land trusts to be run and owned by the descendants of slavery.
These trusts ought not to be taxed for at least a period of 99 years, and taxes on property sold to finance their own development should be reduced. This can form the foundation to help a community whose families have been devastated by poverty and racism, rebuild and support themselves independently. An excellent current example of this is the Cooperation Jackson movement in Jackson Mississippi which strives to create locally owned and mutually supportive businesses, land, and cooperatives to support the black community.
“There are huge numbers of properties being left unproductive and empty. Instead of leaving these properties empty, we should instead use this land as the foundations for land trusts to be run and owned by the descendants of slavery.”
But will this do anything to ameliorate racial strife? Probably not. There is too much value to be gained in exacerbating racial tensions and injustices for the sake of internecine elite power struggles. Too many books, TV ratings, and speaking fees rely on a never-ending cycle of real or imagined racial harm. Besides, while the harm done to the descendants of African slaves in the United States might be the most notorious and prevalent grievance done to a community within this country it is far from the only one.
The ongoing degradation of the Native Americans, both within and outside, of their reservations. The strange otherness assigned to Asian-Americans. The ongoing crisis with Hispanic communities being split down the middle over immigration status. The annihilation of working-class communities by the policies of our neoliberal elites. The historic bigotry against Catholics by the WASPs who dominated American politics for most of our history. The list of grievances suffered by communities of all types within America is almost inexhaustible and can certainly never be resolved to universal satisfaction.
But if a reparations policy is to have even a slight hope at a long-term positive readdress of grievances, then it needs to address control over land and resources necessary for life. Widespread ownership of property, of land, of the means of production are the only means that justice can even have a chance. Without addressing the problem of ownership then this impoverished community will forever be a prime target to be kept in a subservient and dependent status rather than to take full share of what is rightfully theirs as both Children of God and Citizens of the United States of America.
Eric Anton is a husband and father of three, and an Army Veteran. He is a former member of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.