(NNPA)—Since this country began Black people have been excluded from participation in opportunities for wealth-building. Despite the obstacles placed before our ancestors, they made it on their own in many cases. But for the most part they were hamstrung by restrictions that prevented them from achieving economic empowerment on the same level as Whites. While I don’t think that can be argued on any intelligent level, it’s still probably good to cite a few examples.
First of all, if you owned a plantation and received free labor it goes without saying that you would prosper and those providing the free labor would not. Thaddeus Stevens’ plea for reparations to formerly enslaved Blacks notwithstanding, Black people were “freed” without a way of providing for their families, that is, except to continue to work for their former enslavers, as Gen. Gordon Granger suggested in his General Order on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas.
Then there was the land rush, the most notable of which was in Oklahoma. On May 18, 1889, William Willard Howard wrote in Harper’s Weekly, “In 1889 the opening to “White” settlement of a choice portion of Indian Territory in Oklahoma set off one of the most bizarre and chaotic episodes of town founding in world history.” It was, according to the above quote, “choice” land for Whites only. For Blacks it was no land, which meant no wealth.
Another early example of excluding Black people from participating in wealth-building was ownership of businesses. When Black people founded their own towns and began setting up business enclaves, well, you know what happened in Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921. Black Wall Street was burned to the ground by angry Whites.
Fast forward to our capitalistic system and ponder the reasons for the many economic disparities that exist between Whites and Blacks, considering the fact that both groups have been in this country since it began. Yes, slavery is a huge factor, but blatant discrimination, and an unwillingness to remediate the problem, then and now, account for much of the disparity we have today. The railroads, the steel industry, the aerospace industry, and even the semiconductor industry required and received federal assistance in the 19th and 20th centuries, similar to what the auto and banking industries received in the massive stimulus package of 2008-2009.
Black people are being left out and pushed further behind economically. This latest recession has hurt Black people the most. Our unemployment is the highest; our net worth is the lowest; and as usual, we are still the last hired and first fired. Of course, if you haven’t noticed by now, no one is coming to save us. But that does not mitigate the fact that we are so far behind because of exclusion from the basic wealth-building strategies that aided many Whites in this country. Professor Juliet E.K. Walker, in her seminal work, The History of Black Business in America, wrote the following summary of our predicament.
“…after two centuries of supporting White American businesses and after reaping the economic benefits of Black slave labor until 1865, the government owes a great deal to Black American business. Indeed, the position of Black business relative to White business has changed little from before the Civil War to after the Civil Rights era, both in participation rates and gross business receipts.”
Walker goes on to cite the lack of fairness among banks in issuing loans to Black businesses, discrimination against Black businesses when it comes to subsidies, redlining by real estate companies and banking institutions, and “special programs” that have only set Black businesses back even further.
She writes, “In the post-Civil Rights period then, the federal government has failed American Black business. And preferential treatment, the government’s traditional remedy for acts of discrimination, is not the answer to the question of how will the government improve Black American business. A better answer is that Black American business should be provided federal support equal to that provided White American business.”
As the 1992 U.S. Commission on Minority Business Development emphasized, “There appears to be no reason in logic why 99 percent of the businesses in this country are forced to squabble over 20 percent of the federal purchase dollar, when a select 1 percent continue to capture their 80 percent market share largely undisturbed.”
What we are experiencing in today’s economy is what Yogi Berra called, “Déjà vu all over again.”
(James E. Clingman, an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati’s African American Studies department, is former editor of the Cincinnati Herald newspaper and founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce.)