African Americans played an integral role in our thriving US Economy for many centuries. The exploitation of African Americans was the source of free wealth for the newfound colonies which came in the form of free labor provided by the sweat of African slaves. Many generations of white Americans prospered with slavery even after the days of reconstruction but not African Americans.
The economic gap that exists today between African Americans, whites and other ethnic groups in the United States is due in part to generations of racial discrimination and lack of economic reparations to the many millions of African American families that endured chattel slavery. The current state of black America is not a mere coincidence the past events placed many African Americans at a disadvantage which will take, “If current economic trends continue, the average black household will need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their white counterparts hold today” ( Holland, 2016). Although our government has made some strides in alleviating this current problem with more “Equal Opportunities” for blacks and affirmative action which is diminishing gradually African Americans still remain handicap at the bottom of the barrel economically with high unemployment and poverty in highly concentrated black neighborhoods.
Despite predicted population growth by families of color surpassing white families, black families remain behind whites in building wealth. In 1963, “The average wealth of white families was $117,000 higher than the average wealth of nonwhite families. By 2013, the average wealth of white families was over $500,000 higher than the average wealth of African American families ($95,000) and of Hispanic families ($112,000)” (McKernan, 2015). This economic gap between whites and blacks is no coincidence, a Holocaust of 400 years, segregation and racial discrimination in the labor and housing markets are symptoms of slavery. What African Americans need are reparations, monetary reparations that they rightfully deserve for generations of servitude that their ancestors suffered during the years of slavery.
Slave labor was the foundation of a prosperous economic system in the United States
In 1675, black slaves that came from Africa were only about 5,000 but that number increased by 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia there were about half a million slaves. “The transport of Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas was the largest forced migration in world history. Over 10 million people made the journey, so many that changed the trajectory of Africa’s development” (Tindall, G. B., & Shi, D. E. 2013, p. 76). By the year 1850 with the introduction of the cotton crop to the colonies the slave population grew substantially to more than 3 million slaves with many of them working in the Southern plantations with 60 percent of them in the cotton fields and the rest worked either in other popular crops like tobacco or as craftsmen. It is estimated that “Of every hour of useful work done in the Southern states, roughly 40 minutes was performed by a slave” (DeRosa, 2016). The United States became what Saudi Arabia is today with the commodity of petroleum. The South region supplied between 60 and 70 percent of the entire world’s raw cotton. There was nothing quite like it back then with one-fifth of America’s wealth deriving from slaves. By 1840, cotton by 1840, “cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports. “By 1860, just before the Civil war, “slaves, as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States, put together” ( Nolan, 2014). It is estimated that many slaveholders that lived in the Lower Mississippi Valley were multimillionaires. Slaves then which were nearly 4 million were worth nearly $3.5 billion which made them the largest single financial asset for the entire U.S economy. From all those millions, African slaves did not see a single penny from all the work in the plantations. Slaves that somehow managed to acquire their freedom were not able to find jobs and if they did local laws always found ways to get them back in the plantations or steal their property.
It was very common in the South for ordinances to be enacted to make life miserable for freed slaves. In Charleston for example in 1806 were typical of those in force in southern towns and cities until slavery ended. The ordinances made it illegal for slaves, “Carry on any mechanical or handicraft trade for their direct personal benefit, put a slave as an apprentice in any mechanical or handicraft trade under the supervision of another slave, and or buy, sell, or trade goods unless they had a ticket and then could sell only meat, fruit and vegetables and other goods from their owners’ plantations” (Walker, 2009, p.104). Everybody benefited from slavery it was around well-protected business. Cotton consumers, insurance companies, and industrial enterprises benefited from slavery.
The Northern States despite of common belief even though they abolished slavery in 1804 they also benefitted from slavery. The North had an important involvement in slavery and cotton trade. The cotton that was exported to Great Britain and Europe had to get processed in the Northern States. A large percentage of the mills were stationed in New England and they consumed millions of pounds of cotton that originated from the South.
Inequality and Racial Discrimination post Civil War
Following the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, hundreds of thousands of freed slaves died from diseases and hunger. “One white religious leader in 1863 expected black Americans to vanish. “Like his brother the Indian of the forest” (Harris, 2012). Many slaves found it difficult to start their new free life up to a million died during this transition. A lot of freed slaves were not able to find work because or racial injustices and returned to work on the plantations they had escaped from.
After the Civil War, the US government promised many things to freed slaves such as Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 also known as the “40 Acres and Mule”. Union General William T. Sherman issued this order as a compensation/reparation for freed slaves. His order immediately provided settlement for roughly 40,000 blacks but his order was short-lived and only distributed 400, 000 acres to freed slaves. After the civil war ended, President Andrew Johnson overturned Sherman’s order and returned most of the land back to its original Southern planters. Since this overturn, it has been very difficult for African Americans to acquire land for many years, and those that did acquire had difficulties keeping it.
What needs to be done?
Today, many African Americans are still hoping for reasonable reparations, for the labor of emancipated slaves and the failed land redistributions under the Sherman Special Orders of 1865. It would be very symbolic healing for the African American community. The same way the United States government provided reparations to other groups such as the Native Americans for compensation for various Indian communities and for the Japanese survivors from World War II or the same way the German government paid Jews for reparations, African Americans should be equally compensated for a 400 year Holocaust.
The idea of reparations for African Americans has been a topic of discussion between blacks and whites for many years but nothing till day has been done. Since the days of Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King and the Pan-African movement have tried but failed to bring reparations to African Americans but our government has been stagnant in this issue. Many Americans have acknowledged that that African Americans were deprived at the hands of the state and federal governments, corporations, and individuals during the many centuries of slavery but a political effort has to occur in order to bring about changes. In order for African Americans to move forward, economic reparations have to take place. 400 years of Slavery, Jim Crow and racial discrimination have to be rightfully compensated. Equal rights, by all means, are important to the African community but in order to successfully move forward and to help future generations economically compensations must take place.
DeRosa, P. (2016, January 11). Was America Built By Slaves? Retrieved from http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/01/11/was-america-built-by-slaves/
Harris, P. (2012, June 16). How the end of slavery led to starvation and death for millions of black Americans. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/16/slavery-starvation-civil-war
Holland , J. (2016, August 08). The Average Black Family Would Need 228 Years to Build the Wealth of a White Family Today. Retrieved from https://www.thenation.com/article/the-average-black-family-would-need-228-years-to-build-the-wealth-of-a-white-family-today/
McKernan, S. (2015, February). 9 Charts about Wealth Inequality in America. Retrieved from http://apps.urban.org/features/wealth-inequality-charts/
Nolan, H. (2014, September 22). What Reparations in America Could Look Like. Retrieved from http://gawker.com/what-reparations-in-america-could-look-like-1633066247
Ransom, Roger. “Economics of the Civil War”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 24, 2001. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economics-of-the-civil-war/