Sunday, June 21, 2020

Common ownership and the cooperative commonwealth

The long history of racism in the United States has held back black Americans for generations. 
Around the time the United States formally abolished slavery in 1865, African Americans owned 0.5% of the United States’ wealth. Today they own under 3%, even though around 13% of the population is defined by the U.S. census as “black or African American.” This isn’t an accident of history – it’s a result of government policies and institutional bias.
Slavery lasted for nearly 250 years – almost equivalent to the time from the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 until today. University of Connecticut Professor Thomas Craemer estimates the present value of unpaid wages for just the 89 years after independence to be nearly $20 trillion using a 3% interest rate. Use a 6% rate, and that reparations bill rises to almost $7 quadrillion. That is around 50 times global GDP.
An 1865 order set aside land for black households, the promise of “forty acres and a mule.”  The “40 acres and a mule” promised to formerly enslaved Africans never came to pass. There was no redistribution of land, no reparations for the wealth extracted from stolen land by stolen labor. 
A Roosevelt Institute report by Duke University Professor William Darity and writer Kirsten Mullen estimates that at least 40 million acres should have been allocated. If the value grew at a 6% compound interest rate, it would today be worth over $3 trillion – more than the market capitalizations of and Apple combined.

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.

Lost land and wages are only the beginning. Add compensation for racist segregation laws, mass incarceration, employment discrimination and exclusions in government programs.
 In 2017, the racial homeownership gap was at its highest level for 50 years, with 79.1% of white Americans owning a home compared to 41.8% of black Americans. This gap is even larger than it was when racist housing practices such as redlining, which denied black residents mortgages to buy, or loans to renovate, property were legal.
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.

Households that identify as black or African American have roughly $800,000 less in mean net wealth than their white counterparts. Apply that to the population, and the wealth gap comes to over $13 trillion.
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.

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