The Math and Money behind Reparations

Greenville        Several candidates have indicated in very general terms that they are sympathetic to reparations, including Senators Warren, Sanders, and Booker, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro.  That doesn’t mean it’s coming, but perhaps there will start being some meat on these bones.

Several scholars have tried to put some math to the question, and it’s an interesting exercise.   There are roughly 44 million African-Americans in the United States.  Estimates indicate that 30 million could likely document a direct tie through relatives to slavery.

As you can tell, we’re already narrowing the field.  The shadow of slavery persists to this day for black Americans, regardless of blood ties to the evil institution.  This has been documented in looking at the segregation in housing, education, and opportunity that lingers over the last 150 years.  Nonetheless, the estimates are in the trillions inclusive of all of the damage in creating a caste society from the one where slavery dominated.  The South is an ongoing case study.

Other scholars do the math back to the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to those emancipated during the Civil War.  The promise was real, and the history is tragic.  In 1865, General William T. Sherman promised 40 acres and a mule as the Civil War wound down, redistributing a huge tract of Atlantic coastline to black Americans.  President Abraham Lincoln and Congress gave their approval and soon 40,000 freedmen in the South began to plant.  With Lincoln’s assassination, his successor Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and returned the land to the former owners.  Congress made another attempt at compensation, but Johnson vetoed it.  Later Johnson was the first president to be impeached, but that hardly makes us even for the damage he did in upending Reconstruction and the prospects of our country taking a different path.

Some scholars look at the math as the value of 40 acres and a mule over these many years with inflation until today.  The math behind that promise made and then retracted would give the 30 million on the low end of the reparation’s calculation about $70,000 a person under such a reckoning.  That’s big money, but it seems too little to offset the weight of time or balance inequality over generations.  Given the relative lack of citizen wealth in African-American families compared to white families, it would be huge, but somehow not necessarily a game changer.  $70,000 grant wouldn’t be enough necessarily to move next door to the upper middle class.  It might pay for some student loans and a down payment on something, but it wouldn’t end job and housing discrimination.  I’m not saying anyone would look a gift horse in the mouth and walk away from the money, I’m just saying it wouldn’t change the game between winners and losers and achieve equality.  It would be a start though if accompanied by equal commitments around long-term development in education, housing, and job opportunity.

Of course, a couple of trillion is a bite in the butt of the budget, and that could make all of these promises vague.  Committees would be formed.  Studies would be made.  Nero would fiddle. Rome would burn.

The good news is that reparations is becoming part of the political conversation.  We need to make sure this doesn’t end up at the layaway counter.  We need this to be a pay now and pay more later deal.

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Please enjoy Chris Shiflett – Welcome To Your First Heartache

Thanks to KABF.

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The Inside Story of Predatory Land Contracts

New Orleans      A paper by Eric Seymour and Josh Akers in the Cities journal ranked the density of various forms of land contracts that have surged to the forefront in low income areas since the 2008 financial crisis.  This brilliant paper aligns with the work of the ACORN Home Savers Campaign’s findings in the field on the doors.

Seymour and Akers crunched the data correlating where such contracts, REO foreclosures, and race all converged in patterns that leave little room for debate about where predators were feasting with the help of Fannie Mae auctions and other fire sales in lower income, minority neighborhoods.  The highest concentrations were in the in the zone around Detroit from Toledo to Flint and Pontiac.  The second highest was between Cleveland and Youngstown.  Third, was Cincinnati and Dayton.  The fourth finally broke out of the upper Midwest with pockets in St. Louis and Kansas City, but the maps showed it was everywhere.  We had been on the doors in a majority of those cities and could see the faces behind the numbers as people opened their doors.

This is a story writ large over generations.  Reading contemporary memoirs, it is not surprising that if the writer was African-America and came from rough and tumble, hardscrabble beginnings, not infrequently contract home purchases were part of the tale, as much for the predation as their precariousness.

Although Charles Blow has never mentioned it in his New York Times columns, one of the many poignant stories in his memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2014) mentions that his mother packed he and his siblings up to flee an abusive situation when he was a child coming up in northern Louisiana.  Underlining how bad it was, he noted that she was leaving a house she had bought on a land contract when it only had one month to go before she would have gotten the title.  I wrote Blow begging him to write a column about this, but there was no response, which also says a lot as well.

A new book, The World According to Fannie Davis:  My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, by Bridget Davis is getting a lot of favorable attention.  Davis emphasizes how open her mother was about her business inside her home with her children, and how important it was that all of that be kept secret from the world.  In fact, the driving force for Davis telling her mother’s story is to honor her mother’s commitment and reveal the secret.  Reading the book, one discovers quickly that there was another secret that was equally important, personal, and precarious, like her mother’s illegal business, and that was the fact that they were on a month to month land contract.  In order to escape even more risks and even higher interest and payments, her mother had made a deal with someone she knew with better credit to absorb the land contract and paid him in cash every month.  Bridget Davis is clear it was predatory, and her childhood memories read like fresh scars as she writes about how much they loved the house and the neighborhood, and feared on a monthly basis that because of the land contract they could lose it all and everything they had put into it overnight with no recourse.

The story from the outside about what racial discrimination and exploitative real estate contracts have done to communities around the country is a picture of state-sanctioned evil, but the story from inside looking out from the children’s perspective that is now being told as part of lived experience is also tragic.

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Please enjoy Patty Griffin’s Where I come From. Thanks to KABF.

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