Although slavery officially ended in 1865, the unequal treatment of African Americans continued through Jim Crow, red lining, and mass incarceration, among many public policies. Our country’s historic racial wealth disparities continue to be perpetuated and increased by the trend towards extreme inequality in the United States. To further paint a dire picture, a report released earlier this year by the Institute for Policy Studies found that between 1983 and 2016, the median black family saw their wealth drop by more than half, compared to a 33 percent increase for the median white household. Our economy is still thriving off the backs of African Americans and other poor people. While black wealth plummets, the number of households with $10 million or more skyrocketed by 856 percent during those years. On the other end, 37 percent of black families have zero or “negative” wealth, meaning their debts exceed the value of their assets. Just 15 percent of white families are in the same position. By creating a formal commission to study the issue, lawmakers can take a serious look at what reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans in America could look like. Inaction — or worse, repeating the same mistakes that led to this situation — will simply widen the divide and create greater economic instability for the country at large.
Photo: A slave auction in Richmond, Virginia, 1856. While slavery is often regarded as long-ago history, it was integral to shaping our economy — and its inequality — today. (Shutterstock)
It’s time to heal the deep wounds of racism — not only to ensure equity for African Americans, but for our entire economy.
Four hundred years ago this month, the first enslaved people from Africa arrived in Virginia.
Slavery is often reduced to a crime of America’s long-ago past. But enslaved labor created the backbone for America’s capitalistic economy, allowing it to grow into — and remain — the world’s leading economy today.
The effects of this reliance on unpaid African slave labor is still felt in America’s current racial wealth divide. Today the racial wealth divide is greater than it was nearly four decades ago, and trends point to its continued widening.
Although slavery officially ended in 1865, the unequal treatment of African Americans continued through Jim Crow, red lining, and mass incarceration, among many public policies. Our country’s historic racial wealth disparities continue to be perpetuated and increased by the trend towards extreme inequality in the United States. To further paint a dire picture, a report released earlier this year by the Institute for Policy Studies found that between 1983 and 2016, the median black family saw their wealth drop by more than half, compared to a 33 percent increase for the median white household. Our economy is still thriving off the backs of African Americans and other poor people. While black wealth plummets, the number of households with $10 million or more skyrocketed by 856 percent during those years. On the other end, 37 percent of black families have zero or “negative” wealth, meaning their debts exceed the value of their assets. Just 15 percent of white families are in the same position.
The racial wealth divide is an issue that affects all Americans — and the overall health of our economy.
As the black population increases, low levels of black wealth play a key factor in the overall decline in American median household wealth — from $84,111 in 1983 to $81,704 in 2016. Across all races, the number of households experiencing negative wealth has increased from one in six in 1983 to one in five households today.
Many conversations around the depletion of black wealth point towards false narratives about the work ethic of African Americans. This is a myth — studies show that college-educated black families have less wealth than high school-educated white families. And single-parent white families are twice as wealthy as two-parent black families.
The Institute for Policy Studies concludes that these outcomes are not the result of individual behavior, but the result of black Americans having fewer resources to begin with — resources they’ve been denied for 400 years, ever since the first slaves were kidnapped from Africa and brought to America to provide free, strenuous, and valuable labor.
Employment, income, homeownership, stock ownership, entrepreneurship, and virtually all other economic indicators show stark divides around race. To truly overcome these divides, we need a massive, targeted investment similar to the massive, targeted investments that historically appropriated wealth to white communities.
It’ll take bold structural reform and the political will to finally achieve economic justice for African Americans, because clearly ending slavery wasn’t enough.
By creating a formal commission to study the issue, lawmakers can take a serious look at what reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans in America could look like. Inaction — or worse, repeating the same mistakes that led to this situation — will simply widen the divide and create greater economic instability for the country at large.
Four hundred years later, it’s time to stop putting a temporary bandage on the painful and relevant history of American slavery. It’s time to heal the deep wounds of racism and inequity once and for all.
Not only to finally provide African Americans with the economic equity they deserve, but to ensure the health of our economy for generations to come.
A poem by Clint Smith
In Aug. 1619, a ship arrived in Point Comfort, Va., carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans, the first on record to be brought to the English colony of Virginia. They were among the 12.5 million Africans forced into the trans-Atlantic slave trade, their journey to the New World today known as the Middle Passage.
Over the course of 350 years,36,000 slave ships crossed the AtlanticOcean. I walk over to the globe & move
my finger back & forth betweenthe fragile continents. I try to keepcount how many times I drag
my hand across the bristledhemispheres, but grow weary of chasinga history that swallowed me.
For every hundred people who werecaptured & enslaved, forty died before theyever reached the New World.
I pull my index finger from Angolato Brazil & feel the bodies jumping fromthe ship.
I drag my thumb from Ghanato Jamaica & feel the weight of dysenterymake an anvil of my touch.
I slide my ring finger from Senegalto South Carolina & feel the oceanseparate a million families.
The soft hum of history spinson its tilted axis. A cavalcade of ghost shipswash their hands of all they carried.
Clint Smith is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University and the author of the poetry collection “Counting Descent,” as well as a forthcoming nonfiction book, “How the Word Is Passed.” Photo illustration by Jon Key. Diagram: Getty Images.
⬤ March 5, 1770
A poem by Yusef Komunyakaa
In 1770, Crispus Attucks, a fugitive from slavery who worked as dockworker, became the first American to die for the cause of independence after being shot in a clash with British troops.
African & Natick blood-bornknown along paths up & downBoston Harbor, escaped slave,
harpooner & rope maker,he never dreamt a pursuit of happinessor destiny, yet rallied
beside patriots who hurled a furyof snowballs, craggy dirt-frozenchunks of ice, & oyster shells
at the stout flank of redcoats,as the 29th Regiment of Footaimed muskets, waiting for fire!
How often had he walked, gazingdown at gray timbers of the wharf,as if to find a lost copper coin?
Wind deviled cold air as he stoodleaning on his hardwood stick,& then two lead bullets
tore his chest, blood reddening snowon King Street, March 5, 1770,first to fall on captain’s command.
Five colonists lay for calling hoursin Faneuil Hall before sharing a graveat the Granary Burying Ground.
They had laid a foundering stonefor the Minutemen at Lexington& Concord, first to defy & die,
& an echo of the future rose overthe courtroom as John Adamsdefended the Brits, calling the dead
a “motley rabble of saucy boys,negroes & mulattoes, Irishteagues & outlandish jacktars,”
who made soldiers fear for their lives,& at day’s end only two would paywith the branding of their thumbs.
Yusef Komunyakaa is a poet whose books include “The Emperor of Water Clocks” and “Neon Vernacular,” for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches at N.Y.U. Photo illustration by Jon Key.Boston Massacre: National Archives. Attucks: Getty Images.
A poem by Eve L. Ewing
In 1773, a publishing house in London released “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” by Phillis Wheatley, a 20-year-old enslaved woman in Boston, making her the first African-American to publish a book of poetry.
Pretend I wrote this at your grave.Pretend the grave is marked. Pretend we know where it is.Copp’s Hill, say. I have been there and you might be.Foremother, your name is the boat that brought you.Pretend I see it in the stone, with a gruesome cherub.Children come with thin paper and charcoal to touch you.Pretend it drizzles and a man in an ugly plastic ponchocircles the Mathers, all but sniffing the air warily.We don’t need to pretend for this part.There is a plaque in the grass for Increase, and Cotton.And Samuel, dead at 78, final son, who was thereon the day when they came looking for proof.Eighteen of them watched you and they signed to say:the Poems specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe)written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since,brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africaand the abolitionists cheered at the blow to Kantthe Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the triflingand the enlightened ones bellowed at the strike against Humeno ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences
Pretend I was there with you, Phillis, when you asked in a letter to no one:How many iambs to be a real human girl?Which turn of phrase evidences a righteous heart?If I know of Ovid may I keep my children?
Pretend that on your grave there is a dateand it is so long before my heroes came along to call you a coonfor the praises you sang of your captorswho took you on discount because they assumed you would diethat it never ever hurt your feelings.Or pretend you did not love America.Phillis, I would like to think that after you were released unto the world,when they jailed your husband for his debtsand you lay in the maid’s quarters at night,a free and poor woman with your last living boy,that you thought of the Metamorphoses,making the sign of Arachne in the tangle of your fingers.And here, after all, lay the proof:The man in the plastic runs a thumb over stone. The gray is slick and tough.Phillis Wheatley: thirty-one. Had misery enough.
Eve L. Ewing is the author of “1919,” the “Ironheart” series, “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side” and “Electric Arches.” She is a professor at the University of Chicago.
⬤ Feb. 12, 1793
A redacted poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts
In 1793, George Washington signed into law the first Fugitive Slave Act, which required United States citizens to return runaway enslaved people to the state from which they came.
⬤ Aug. 30, 1800
Fiction by Barry Jenkins
In 1800, Gabriel Prosser, a 24-year-old literate blacksmith, organized one of the most extensively planned slave rebellions, with the intention of forming an independent black state in Virginia. After other enslaved people shared details of his plot, Gabriel’s Rebellion was thwarted. He was later tried, found guilty and hanged.
As he approached the Brook Swamp beneath the city of Richmond, Va., Gabriel
Prosser looked to the sky. Up above, the clouds coalesced into an impenetrable black, bringing on darkness and a storm the ferocity of which the region had scarcely seen. He may have cried and he may have prayed but the thing Gabriel did not do was turn back. He was expecting fire on this night and would make no concessions for the coming rain.
And he was not alone. A hundred men; 500 men; a thousand men had gathered from all over the state on this 30th day of August 1800. Black men, African men — men from the fields and men from the house, men from the church and the smithy — men who could be called many things but after this night would not be called slaves gathered in the flooding basin armed with scythes, swords, bayonets and smuggled guns.
One of the men tested the rising water, citing the Gospel of John: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” But the water would not abate. As the night wore on and the storm persisted, Gabriel was overcome by a dawning truth: The Gospel would not save him. His army could not pass.
Gov. James Monroe was expecting them. Having returned from his appointment to France and built his sweeping Highland plantation on the periphery of Charlottesville, Monroe wrote to his mentor Thomas Jefferson seeking advice on his “fears of a negro insurrection.” When the Negroes Tom and Pharoah of the Sheppard plantation betrayed Gabriel’s plot on a Saturday morning, Monroe was not surprised. By virtue of the privilege bestowed upon him as his birthright, he was expecting them.
Prosser was executed Oct. 10, 1800. Eighteen hundred; the year Denmark Vesey bought his freedom, the year of John Brown’s and Nat Turner’s births. As he awaited the gallows near the foot of the James River, Gabriel could see all that was not to be — the first wave of men tasked to set fire to the city perimeter, the second to fell a city weakened by the diversion; the governor’s mansion, James Monroe brought to heel and served a lash for every man, woman and child enslaved on his Highland plantation; the Quakers, Methodists, Frenchmen and poor whites who would take up with his army and create a more perfect union from which they would spread the infection of freedom — Gabriel saw it all.
He even saw Tom and Pharoah, manumitted by the government of Virginia, a thousand dollars to their master as recompense; a thousand dollars for the sabotage of Gabriel’s thousand men. He did not see the other 25 men in his party executed. Instead, he saw Monroe in an audience he wanted no part of and paid little notice to. For Gabriel
Prosser the blacksmith, leader of men and accepting no master’s name, had stepped into the troubled water. To the very last, he was whole. He was free.
Barry Jenkins was born and raised in Miami. He is a director and writer known for his adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Moonlight,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Photo illustration by Jon Key. House: Sergey Golub via Wikimedia. Landscape, right: Peter Traub via Wikimedia.
⬤ Jan. 1, 1808
Fiction by Jesmyn Ward
In 1808, the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves went into effect, banning the importation of enslaved people from abroad. But more than one million enslaved people who could be bought and sold were already in the country, and the breaking up of black families continued.
The whisper run through the quarters like a river swelling to flood. We passed the story to each other in the night in our pallets, in the day over the well, in the fields as we pulled at the fallow earth. They ain’t stealing us from over the water no more. We dreamed of those we was stolen from: our mothers who oiled and braided our hair to our scalps, our fathers who cut our first staffs, our sisters and brothers who we pinched for tattling on us, and we felt a cool light wind move through us for one breath. Felt like ease to imagine they remained, had not been stolen, would never be.
That be a foolish thing. We thought this later when the first Georgia Man come and roped us. Grabbed a girl on her way for morning water. Snatched a boy running to the stables. A woman after she left her babies blinking awake in their sack blankets. A man sharpening a hoe. They always came before dawn for us chosen to be sold south.
We didn’t understand what it would be like, couldn’t think beyond the panic, the prying, the crying, the begging and the screaming, the endless screaming from the mouth and beyond. Sounding through the whole body, breaking the heart with its volume. A blood keen. But the ones that owned and sold us was deaf to it. Was unfeeling of the tugging the children did on their fathers’ arms or the glance of a sister’s palm over her sold sister’s face for the last time. But we was all feeling, all seeing, all hearing, all smelling: We felt it for the terrible dying it was. Knowed we was walking out of one life and into another. An afterlife in a burning place.
The farther we marched, the hotter it got. Our skin grew around the rope. Our muscles melted to nothing. Our fat to bone. The land rolled to a flat bog, and in the middle of it, a city called New Orleans. When we shuffled into that town of the dead, they put us in pens. Fattened us. Tried to disguise our limps, oiled the pallor of sickness out of our skins, raped us to assess our soft parts, then told us lies about ourselves to make us into easier sells. Was told to answer yes when they asked us if we were master seamstresses, blacksmiths or lady’s maids. Was told to disavow the wives we thought we heard calling our names when we first woke in the morning, the husbands we imagined lying with us, chest to back, while the night’s torches burned, the children whose eyelashes we thought we could still feel on our cheeks when the rain turned to a fine mist while we stood in lines outside the pens waiting for our next hell to take legs and seek us out.
Trade our past lives for new deaths.
Jesmyn Ward is the author of “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” which won a National Book Award. She was a 2017 MacArthur fellow. Photo illustration by Jon Key. Landscape: Peter Traub via Wikimedia.