The proportion of the United States under black ownership has actually shrunk over the last 100 years or so.
At their peak in 1910, African American farmers made up around 14% of all U.S. farmers, owning 16 to 19 million acres of land. By 2012, black Americans represented just 1.6% of the farming community, owning 3.6 million acres of land.
Another study shows a 98% decline in black farmers between 1920, and 1997. This contrasts sharply with an increase in acres owned by white farmers over the same period.
In a 1998 report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ascribed this decline to a long and “well-documented” history of discrimination against black farmers, ranging from New Deal and USDA discriminatory practices dating from the 1930s to 1950s-era exclusion from legal, title and loan resources.
A 2017 report found that the median net worth for non-immigrant black American households in the greater Boston region was just US$8, but for whites it was $247,500. This was due to “general housing and lending discrimination through restrictive covenants, redlining and other lending practices.”
Nationally, between 1983 and 2013, median black household wealth decreased by 75% to $1,700 while median white household wealth increased 14% to $116,800.
The idea of collective ownership has a long history in the United States. Even during slavery, a piece of ground was granted by slave masters for enslaved African subsistence farming. The Jamaican social theorist Sylvia Wynter called this land “the plot.” Wynter has explained how that these parcels of land were transformed into communal areas where slaves could establish their own social order, sustain traditional African folklore and food– growing yams, cassava and sweet potatoes. Plots were often called “yam grounds,” so important was this staple food. With the end of slavery, these plots disappeared.
The principles of collective land ownership evolved in post-slavery black America. It was central to civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms, a cooperative model designed to deliver economic justice to the poorest black farmers in the American South. In Hamer’s view, the fight for justice in the face of oppression required a measure of independence that could be achieved through owning land and providing resources for the community.
The idea of a black commons as a means of economic empowerment formed a focus of W.E.B. DuBois’ 1907 “Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans.” DuBois believed that the extreme segregation of the Jim Crow era made it necessary to ground economic empowerment in the cultural bonds between black people and that this could be achieved through cooperative ownership.
The political economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard has noted in reference to black credit unions and mutual aid funds, “African Americans, as well as other people of color and low-income people, have benefited greatly from cooperative ownership and democratic economic participation throughout the nation’s history.”
In a 2018 statement, the nonprofit Schumacher Center for a New Economics proposed to adopt a community land trust structure “to serve as a national vehicle to amass purchased and gifted lands in a black commons with the specific purpose of facilitating low-cost access for black Americans hitherto without such access.”
While recognising that cooperation and social ownership is the way forward, the World Socialist Movement suggests that common ownership and free access to the wealth of society should be the vision for the future, not only of African Americans but for all peoples. The WSM calls for the cooperative world commonwealth.