Racial Histories

Table of Contents

History of Black Land Theft

Racial History of Welfare

Racial History of Unions and Right to Work Policies

Racial History of Gun Ownership

Racial History of Standardized Testing

Racial History of American Medicine

50 years after the Kerner Commission

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History of Black Land Theft

  • Land Theft
    • 45 years after Civil War
      • Freed slaves & descendants accumulated 15 million acres of land
      • Mostly in south and generally used for farming
    • 1920
      • 925,000 black-owned farms
      • 14% of all farms in the US
    • 192075
      • 600,000 black farmers were pushed off there land
      • USDA lending discrimination, white supremacy, terrorism, theft, economic marginalization, etc.
    • 1975
      • 45,000 black-owned farms remained
    • Today:
      • Less than 2% of farmers are black
        • 1% of rural landowners are black
        • Of the 1 billion acres of arable US land, Black people today own a little more than 1 million acres

“When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping. This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars.” Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Atlantic

Any discussion of reparations must include how this happened, who did it, and the laws, policies and practices that allowed it.

A House Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday held the first hearing in over a decade on the issue of reparations for black Americans. The hearing took place, fittingly, on the Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the announcement of the end of slavery in the United States, and five years after the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who testified, reignited the debate with his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations.” Once a fringe topic, reparations has emerged as an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, with several leading candidates for the Democratic nomination expressing support for various measures to atone for America’s racist past.

Thanks to Mr. Coates and others, today’s movement for reparations places as much emphasis on the racist public policies of the 20th century, which denied black Americans opportunities to build wealth and left them vulnerable to all manner of economic exploitation, as it does on the crimes of slavery. Many leading proponents of reparations point to the federal government’s failure to provide land and resources (40 acres and a mule) to former slaves following emancipation, as promised, as laying the course for today’s inequities. “Had such a racial land reform taken place,” the Duke University economist William Darity Jr. argues, “it is easy to envision that the vast current differences in wealth between black and nonblacks would not exist.” Mr. Darity has gone so far as to use the ungranted 40 acres of land that was due former slaves as the basis for calculating the amount of reparations due to their descendants today.

But in addition to invoking the 40 acres black people never got, the reparations movement today should be talking about the approximately 11 million acres black people had but lost, in many cases through fraud, deception and outright theft, much of it taken in the past 50 years.

These property holdings could have provided a foundation for black wealth-building in post-Jim Crow America. Instead, they became a source of riches for others. Rather than helping to close the racial wealth gap, blacks’ landholdings became a key force in widening it. Black land-taking has been as instrumental as the denial of opportunities to acquire property in creating today’s racial wealth inequality and offers a more telling indicator of the barriers to upward mobility black people faced — and continue to face — in America.

Understanding how this happened, identifying who did it and addressing the laws, policies and practices that allowed — and continue to allow — it to happen must be at the center of any discussion of reparations.

In the decades after the end of Reconstruction, as the nation abandoned its black citizens and the South descended into the age of Jim Crow, African-Americans succeeded, against all odds, in acquiring a remarkable amount of land. By 1910, black people claimed ownership of nearly 16 million acres in America. They did so in spite of the constant threat of forced dispossession at the hands of white mobs and officials. Sometimes, black property owners faced sudden and violent attacks, such as the racial cleansing of Forsyth County, Ga., in 1912 and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921.

As often, though, whites undermined black property ownership by more subtle means. White tax assessors routinely overvalued black-owned land, forcing black property owners to bear a heavier tax burden than whites (to pay for services they didn’t receive) and slowly draining families of earnings. If black-owned property became valuable or a black property owner challenged white supremacy, local officials could simply declare the property tax-delinquent and sell it at a tax sale. Writing in 1940, the N.A.A.C.P. special counsel Thurgood Marshall described the manipulation of tax-delinquency laws by white officials in the South as a practice and custom of “depriving Negroes of their property through subterfuge.”

Despite this, at the dawn of the civil rights era, African-Americans still held substantial amounts of land, mostly in the South, a major portion of which was in some of the region’s fastest-growing areas and hottest real estate markets. Thanks to huge federal investments during the New Deal, the South in the mid-20th century went from being what President Franklin Roosevelt described as the “nation’s No. 1 economic problem” in the 1930s to the booming Sun Belt by the 1960s. The region’s rapid growth, along with the emergence of new industries like vacationing and tourism in rural and coastal areas, created an insatiable demand for land and made black property owners targets for removal by white officials and plunder by profit-seeking speculators. Both exploited the byproducts of blacks’ history of oppression to achieve their objectives.

The story of Evelina Jenkins, a black South Carolina Sea Islands native, offers a case in point. She owned dozens of acres of property — including an entire island — at a time in the early 1970s when land values along the state’s coastline were skyrocketing. As a result of the state’s pitiful expenditures on “colored” schools, Ms. Jenkins had received only minimal education and never learned to read. Decades of disfranchisement and white control of local government and the courts had taught her that whatever rights and protections it afforded did not apply to her. Even venturing inside the local government offices where people registered for licenses or paid their taxes was an invitation to be mistreated and humiliated, and was something to avoid.

So Ms. Jenkins entrusted a white neighbor who had befriended her to take her annual property tax payments to town for her. But rather than submitting Ms. Jenkins’s payments, he pocketed them, then waited for her taxes to fall delinquent, whereupon he bought the lien to her property at the county’s annual tax auction. Then, after the statutory redemption window closed, he gained title to her landholdings, island and all, which he subsequently resold to a developer. In the decades since, the land Jenkins once owned has generated untold amounts of wealth. Houses on the island she once owned today sell for upward of $400,000. Ms. Jenkins, though, never saw a dime of it. Rather than leave her children an ample inheritance, she died penniless, forced to live out her last days in her daughter’s mobile home.

While Ms. Jenkins’s case was particularly egregious, the legal theft of black land in similar ways was not uncommon. In booming real estate markets like Hilton Head and surrounding Sea Islands, tax sales afforded investors a lucrative opportunity to acquire valuable property for pennies on the dollar. Here and elsewhere, local tax assessors served as accessories before the fact, deliberately overvaluing black-owned land or enacting sharp, capricious assessment spikes as development crept near, all aimed at forcing poor black farming families to sell under duress or steering them into tax delinquency.

Tax sales were just one of several ways speculators and developers manipulated property and tax laws, and exploited historic inequities, to expropriate black people’s land. Another was the forced partition sale. Because whites controlled the courts, blacks who acquired property during Jim Crow often opted to handle matters of inheritance informally, outside of the legal system. Instead of probating their wills, black property owners tended to bequeath their property to descendants in the form of undivided shares — an arrangement under which heirs become co-owners of a property, each with the right to sell his or her own interest. Predatory land speculators would search for a person who had recently inherited land this way and was willing to sell his or her share. Once the sale went through, the speculator — now a co-owner of the property — would have the right to petition the courts to order a sale of the entire tract of land (against the wishes of those family members who lived on it) and would then buy it.

These partition sales invariably resulted in the land being sold at well below its market value, enriching the buyer while leaving the displaced and dispossessed family members with nothing. Speculators have used this legal trick to force the sale of millions of acres of black-owned land over the past several decades. Only in the past couple of years have some states begun to adopt a uniform law designed to curb the most predatory abuses of heirs property laws. Much of the damage, though, has been done.

Indeed, many of the techniques used to take black-owned land remain legal today. The tax-sale law that allowed someone to steal Ms. Jenkins’s land remains on the books in South Carolina and many other states, and continues to be used to extract wealth from poor and vulnerable communities across America. Tax buying thrived in the wake of the 2008 housing foreclosure crisis, as the number of tax-delinquent homes mushroomed, and today in gentrifying cities, where rising property assessments function as a self-fulfilling prophecy, predicting the changes local officials hope to bring and forcing low-income people out.

Many local governments have resisted calls to protect homeowners from predatory tax buying and have instead sought to increase profitability for investors; other cities have taken aggressive steps to foreclose on tax-delinquent properties. Between 2011 and 2015, Detroit initiated tax foreclosures on one out of every four properties in the city, an epidemic of tax delinquency caused, in large measure, by the illegal over-assessment of lower-valued properties. Then and now, the victims of discriminatory overtaxation and predatory tax buying are disproportionately black.

These continuing practices, more than the government’s broken promise of 40 acres and a mule 150 years ago, explain why black families today have 10 cents to every dollar held by white households and why that gap continues to widen. It’s why the history of black land-taking should be at the center of the reparations debate, not only because the scale of the loss was so great but also because it forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that American prosperity has not bypassed black Americans so much as it has come directly at their expense. It’s no coincidence that African-American communities on the Sea Islands suffered their heaviest land losses in the 1970s and 1980s, the same decades when the area experienced its most rapid economic growth.

Indeed, slavery and Jim Crow not only excluded generations of black Americans from benefits and opportunities enjoyed by white Americans; it also exposed them to the most predatory features of our capitalist system. It turned black people’s earnest attempts to build wealth the American way — through property ownership — into an opportunity for others to profit at their expense.

If we ever hope to repair the damage racism has done to America, and address the dividends it continues to pay to white Americans, we cannot simply open to black Americans previously closed doors of opportunity or merely provide some form of compensation for past injustices. We must also work to dismantle the laws and policies that sanction the continued extraction of property and resources from black communities.

The Nation: The Real Story of Racism at the USDA

The USDA’s real race problem is its history of discrimination against African-American, Native American and other minority farmers who were pushed off their land.

Right now, if you do a web search of the words “racism” and “USDA,” the majority of links will steer you to coverage of this week’s Shirley Sherrod affair, in which the African-American US Department of Agriculture staffer based in Georgia resigned after a conservative website reversed the meaning of a speech she gave last year to imply she would deny farm loans to whites.

It’s an astonishing development given the history of race relations at the USDA, an agency whose own Commission on Small Farms admitted in 1998 that “the history of discrimination at the US Department of Agriculture…is well-documented”—not against white farmers but African-American, Native American and other minorities who were pushed off their land by decades of racially biased laws and practices.

It’s also a black eye for President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who signaled a desire to atone for the USDA’s checkered past, including pushing for funding of a historic $1.15 billion settlement that would help thousands of African-American farmers but now faces bitter resistance from Senate Republicans.

Forced Off the Land

Any discussion about race and the USDA has to start with the crisis of black land loss. Although the US government never followed through on its promise to freed slaves of “forty acres and a mule,” African-Americans were able to establish a foothold in Southern agriculture. Black land ownership peaked in 1910, when 218,000 African-American farmers had an ownership stake in 15 million acres of land.

By 1992, those numbers had dwindled to 2.3 million acres held by 18,000 black farmers. And that wasn’t just because farming was declining as a way of life: blacks were being pushed off the land in vastly disproportionate numbers. In 1920, one of out seven US farms were black-run; by 1992, African-Americans operated one out of 100 farms.

The USDA isn’t to blame for all of that decline, but the agency created by President Lincoln in 1862 as the “people’s department” did little to stem the tide—and in many cases, made the situation worse.

After decades of criticism and an upsurge in activism by African-American farmers, the USDA hosted a series of “listening sessions” in the 1990s, which added to a growing body of evidence of systematic discrimination:

Black farmers tell stories of USDA officials—especially local loan authorities in all-white county committees in the South—spitting on them, throwing their loan applications in the trash and illegally denying them loans. This happened for decades, through at least the 1990s. When the USDA’s local offices did approve loans to Black farmers, they were often supervised (farmers couldn’t spend the borrowed money without receiving item-by-item authorization from the USDA) or late (and in farming, timing is everything). Meanwhile, white farmers were receiving unsupervised, on-time loans. Many say egregious discrimination by local loan officials persists today.

Among those concluding that such racial bias persisted were the USDA’s own researchers: In the mid-1990s, they released a report [pdf] which, analyzing data from 1990 to 1995, found “minorities received less than their fair share of USDA money for crop payments, disaster payments, and loans.”

Adding insult to injury, when African-American and other minority farmers filed complaints, the USDA did little to address them. In 1983, President Reagan pushed through budget cuts that eliminated the USDA Office of Civil Rights—and officials admitted they “simply threw discrimination complaints in the trash without ever responding to or investigating them” until 1996, when the office re-opened. Even when there were findings of discrimination, they often went unpaid—and those that did often came too late, since the farm had already been foreclosed.

In 1997, a USDA Civil Rights Team found the agency’s system for handling civil rights complaints was still in shambles [pdf]: the agency was disorganized, the process for handling complaints about program benefits was “a failure,” and the process for handling employment discrimination claims was “untimely and unresponsive.”

A follow-up report [pdf] by the GAO in 1999 found 44 percent of program discrimination cases, and 64 percent of employment discrimination cases, had been backclogged for over a year.

Taking USDA Discrimination to Court

It was against this backdrop that in 1997, a group of black farmers led by Tim Pigford of North Carolina filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA. In all 22,000 farmers were granted access to the lawsuit, and in 1999 the government admitted wrongdoing and agreed to a $2.3 billion settlement—the largest civil rights settlement in history.

But African-American farmers had misgivings with the Pigford settlement. For one, only farmers discriminated against between 1981 and 1996 could join the lawsuit. Second, the settlement forced farmers to take one of two options: Track A, to receive an immediate $50,000 cash payout, or Track B, the promise of a larger amount if more extensive documentation was provided—a challenge given that many farmers didn’t keep records.

Many farmers who joined the lawsuit were also denied payment: By one estimate, nine out of ten farmers who sought restitution under Pigford were denied. The Bush Department of Justice spent 56,000 office hours and $12 million contesting farmers’ claims; many farmers feel their cases were dismissed on technicalities.

The Nation: African Americans Have Lost Untold Acres of Land Over the Last Century

…In the 45 years following the Civil War, freed
 slaves and their descendants accumulated roughly 15 million acres of land across the United States, most of it in the South. Land ownership meant stability and opportunity for black families, a shot at upward mobility and economic security for future generations. The hard-won property was generally used for farming, the primary occupation of most Southern blacks in the early 20th century. By 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms, representing about 14 percent of all farms in the United States.

Over the course of the 20th century, however, that number dropped precipitously. Millions of farmers of all races were pushed off their land in the early part of the century, including around 600,000 black farmers. By 1975, just 45,000 black-owned farms remained. “It was almost as if the earth was opening up and swallowing black farmers,” writes scholar Pete Daniel in his book Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights. Implicit in the decline of black farming was the loss of the land those farmers once tilled. Today, African Americans compose less than 2 percent of the nation’s farmers and 1 percent of its 
rural landowners.

Many factors contributed to the loss of black-owned land during the 20th century, including systemic discrimination in lending by the US Department of Agriculture, the industrialization that lured workers into factories, and the Great Migration. But the lesser-known issue of heirs’ property also played a role, allowing untold thousands of acres to be forcibly bought out from under black rural families—often second-, third-, or fourth-generation landowners whose ancestors were 
enslaved—by real-estate developers and speculators.

By one estimate, 81 percent of these early black landowners didn’t make wills, largely due to a lack of access to legal resources. Their descendants then inherited the land without a clear title, and it thereby became designated as heirs’ property. Although heirs’ property exists in many regions of the country, it’s most prevalent in low-income communities. In the South, according to one estimate, more than 50 percent of heirs’-property owners are African-American, many of them the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, based in Charleston County, South Carolina, estimates that there are 105,000 acres of heirs’ property in its 15-county service area alone.

Without a clear title, heirs’-property owners are limited in what they can do with their land. They can’t get mortgages or do extensive repairs on their homes; as a consequence, some live in trailers. They aren’t eligible to apply for state or federal housing aid (such as funds provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency) or for nearly any of the programs administered by the Department of Agriculture, including the crucial loans and conservation funding that keep many rural landowners afloat. “So [they’re] already hampered because [they] have heirs’ property,” explains Jennie L. Stephens, the executive director of the center, “but now [they’re] sitting here with these hundreds of acres, and [they] can’t do anything with it.”

As with the Allen family, heirs’ property is often jointly owned by many descendants, some of whom are scattered across the country and may never have met one another. Each has a claim to the land, but this type of joint ownership makes them vulnerable to a peculiar legal challenge: Any one of these co-owners has the legal right to sell their share of the property—or even to bring the whole parcel of land to court-ordered auction—without the consent of the others.

These “partition sales” are one cause of the dispossession crisis, according to the Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition. Property developers entice faraway relatives who may never have visited their family’s land to sell their share for a fraction of its market value. Once they buy a share, these developers can then sell all of the land at auction for a large profit. A 2001 report from the US Agricultural Census estimated that about 80 percent of black-owned farmland had disappeared in the South since 1969. Approximately half of that land was lost through partition sales.

Thomas W. Mitchell, an expert in heirs’ property at the Texas A&M University School of Law, says families will often try to fend off partition sales by arguing that their land is historically significant, or of cultural importance to the African-American 
community. But until recently, the courts weren’t legally required to take into account the historical or cultural value of the land, and so they generally don’t.

Mitchell attributes the persistent and ongoing issue of partition sales in the African-American community to a question of power, at least in part. “If the Kennedys, the Bushes, or the Clintons had their property sold under these circumstances,” he says, “the law would have been reformed” by now.

Hilton Head, on the southeastern coast 
of South Carolina, is one of more than 100 coastal islands that form the Sea Islands. Though it is now primarily known as a golfing and resort destination, Hilton Head was once almost entirely inhabited by the Gullah people. The Gullah are descendants of enslaved West Africans who, like Dennis Allen, moved to the Sea Island region at the end of the Civil War, or who had previously been enslaved on area plantations. Gullah communities thrived for decades on the isolated islands, largely free of the restrictions of the Jim Crow South. For generations, they maintained an agricultural, barter-based economy.

Then, in the mid-1950s, development came to Hilton Head. Wealthy industrialists bought up hundreds of acres for recreational sites as highway and bridge construction made it easier for mainland residents to reach the islands. By the 1990s, the waterfront properties on Hilton Head had become highly desirable among wealthy whites seeking a vacation home.

The development displaced many Gullah people. Some families lost their land to rising property taxes, which they could no longer afford to pay, but others lost their land in partition sales, their property brought to auction by developers in forced sales or by partial owners convinced to sell it for a fraction of its value. In areas where the Gullah once made up 90 percent or more of the population, they account for as little as 10 percent today, according to Willie Heyward, managing attorney at the Heirs’ Property Law Firm. Somewhere between 200 and 700 acres of the land on Hilton Head—no one knows the exact number—
remain in Gullah hands.

“The property that we owned was prime property,” says Alex Brown, a Gullah native and chair of the island’s planning commission. “Over time, it’s been sold and traded and stolen.” And because of the Gullah’s unique history of agricultural production, the loss of land amounts to a loss of culture.

“If we don’t have our land, we don’t have our family,” says Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. “This is the battle we’re in now.”

Beyond Hilton Head, all of South Carolina has experienced enormous demographic shifts in the past 50 years. African Americans comprised nearly half of the state’s farmers in 1950, but by 2012 represented just 7 percent. In Beaufort County, which includes Hilton Head and other coastal islands, the population is now 
77 percent white, compared with 57 percent black in 1950. This shift has created tension between “native islanders” and the newcomers, many of them white retirees from the North. And it was facilitated by the forced sale of thousands of acres of black-owned land. To this day, Mitchell says, South Carolina is the “ground zero” of African-American partition sales.

The Braddock’s Point Cemetery, an historic Gullah burial ground now surrounded by Hilton Head’s Sea Pines resort. (Richard Ellis.)

On September 22, 2016, Nikki Haley, then 
governor of South Carolina, signed the Clementa C. Pinckney Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act. The law, named for the revered state senator and pastor who was killed in the 2015 massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, provides several protections for heirs’-
property owners. If one co-tenant initiates a sale, for instance, the other co-tenants must be given an opportunity to buy that tenant’s share before the land can be sold. The act also requires judges to consider things like the sentimental, cultural, or historical significance of the land as well as its market value (previously the only consideration in most cases) before ruling to sell it. And if the land is sold, it must be sold on the open market instead of at auction, so that families receive a fair price. Josh Walden, the supervising attorney at the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, calls the act a “great tool” with the potential to preserve the land of many heirs’-property owners. Queen Quet calls it “a blessing.”

The law has its origins in model legislation that was written in 2010 by the Uniform Law Commission, which drafts bills for states to consider. Thomas W. Mitchell was its lead author—only the second African American in the history of the commission to serve as the lead author of a uniform law. He calls the act the “most significant reform to property law in the history of this country.” It has already been passed by 10 states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas, and was introduced in the District of Columbia earlier this year.

Propublica: Heirs Property Rights and Why Black Families Lose Land in the South

In the spring of 2011, the brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were the talk of Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. Some people said that the brothers were righteous; others thought that they had lost their minds. That March, Melvin and Licurtis stood in court and refused to leave the land that they had lived on all their lives, a portion of which had, without their knowledge or consent, been sold to developers years before. The brothers were among dozens of Reels family members who considered the land theirs, but Melvin and Licurtis had a particular stake in it. Melvin, who was 64, with loose black curls combed into a ponytail, ran a club there and lived in an apartment above it. He’d established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land, and his sense of self was tied to the water. Licurtis, who was 53, had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s.

Their great-grandfather had bought the land a hundred years earlier, when he was a generation removed from slavery. The property — 65 marshy acres that ran along Silver Dollar Road, from the woods to the river’s sandy shore — was racked by storms. Some called it the bottom, or the end of the world. Melvin and Licurtis’ grandfather Mitchell Reels was a deacon; he farmed watermelons, beets and peas, and raised chickens and hogs. Churches held tent revivals on the waterfront, and kids played in the river, a prime spot for catching red-tailed shrimp and crabs bigger than shoes. During the later years of racial-segregation laws, the land was home to the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. “It’s our own little black country club,” Melvin and Licurtis’ sister Mamie liked to say. In 1970, when Mitchell died, he had one final wish. “Whatever you do,” he told his family on the night that he passed away, “don’t let the white man have the land.”

Mitchell didn’t trust the courts, so he didn’t leave a will. Instead, he let the land become heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. The practice began during Reconstruction, when many African Americans didn’t have access to the legal system, and it continued through the Jim Crow era, when black communities were suspicious of white Southern courts. In the United States today, 76% of African Americans do not have a will, more than twice the percentage of white Americans.

Many assume that not having a will keeps land in the family. In reality, it jeopardizes ownership. David Dietrich, a former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force, has called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” Heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion. These landowners are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. Black families watch as their land is auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will.

Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families. Now, as reparations have become a subject of national debate, the issue of black land loss is receiving renewed attention. A group of economists and statisticians recently calculated that, since 1910, black families have been stripped of hundreds of billions of dollars because of lost land. Nathan Rosenberg, a lawyer and a researcher in the group, told me, “If you want to understand wealth and inequality in this country, you have to understand black land loss.”

By the time of Melvin and Licurtis’ hearing in 2011, they had spent decades fighting to keep the waterfront on Silver Dollar Road. They’d been warned that they would go to jail if they didn’t comply with a court order to stay off the land, and they felt betrayed by the laws that had allowed it to be taken from them. They had been baptized in that water. “You going to go there, take my dreams from me like that?” Licurtis asked on the stand. “How about it was you?”

They expected to argue their case in court that day. Instead, the judge ordered them sent to jail, for civil contempt. Hearing the ruling, Melvin handed his 83-year-old mother, Gertrude, his flip phone and his gold watch. As the eldest son, he had promised relatives that he would assume responsibility for the family. “I can take it,” he said. Licurtis looked at the floor and shook his head. He had thought he’d be home by the afternoon; he’d even left his house unlocked. The bailiff, who had never booked anyone in civil superior court, had only one set of handcuffs. She put a cuff on each brother’s wrist, and led them out the back door. The brothers hadn’t been charged with a crime or given a jury trial. Still, they believed so strongly in their right to the property that they spent the next eight years fighting the case from jail, becoming two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.

Land was an ideological priority for black families after the Civil War, when nearly 4 million people were freed from slavery. On Jan. 12, 1865, just before emancipation, the Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and asked them what they needed. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land,” their spokesperson, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, told Sherman. Freedom, he said, was “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” Sherman issued a special field order declaring that 400,000 acres formerly held by Confederates be given to African Americans — what came to be known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The following year, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, opening up an additional 46 million acres of public land for Union supporters and freed people.

The promises never materialized. In 1876, near the end of Reconstruction, only about 5% of black families in the Deep South owned land. But a new group of black landowners soon established themselves. Many had experience in the fields, and they began buying farms, often in places with arid or swampy soil, especially along the coast. By 1920, African Americans, who made up 10% of the population, represented 14% of Southern farm owners.

A white-supremacist backlash spread across the South. At the end of the 19th century, members of a movement who called themselves Whitecaps, led by poor white farmers, accosted black landowners at night, beating them or threatening murder if they didn’t abandon their homes. In Lincoln County, Mississippi, Whitecaps killed a man named Henry List, and more than 50 African Americans fled the town in a single day. Over two months in 1912, violent white mobs in Forsyth County, Georgia, drove out almost the entire black population — more than a thousand people. Ray Winbush, the director of the Institute for Urban Research, at Morgan State University, told me, “There is this idea that most blacks were lynched because they did something untoward to a young woman. That’s not true. Most black men were lynched between 1890 and 1920 because whites wanted their land.”

By the second half of the 20th century, a new form of dispossession had emerged, officially sanctioned by the courts and targeting heirs’ property owners without clear titles. These landowners are exposed in a variety of ways. They don’t qualify for certain Department of Agriculture loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting. Individual heirs can’t use their land as collateral with banks and other institutions, and so are denied private financing and federal home-improvement loans. They generally aren’t eligible for disaster relief. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid bare the extent of the problem in New Orleans, where 25,000 families who applied for rebuilding grants had heirs’ property. One Louisiana real-estate attorney estimated that up to $165 million of recovery funds were never claimed because of title issues.

Heirs are rarely aware of the tenuous nature of their ownership. Even when they are, clearing a title is often an unaffordable and complex process, which requires tracking down every living heir, and there are few lawyers who specialize in the field. Nonprofits often pick up the slack. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, has cleared more than 200 titles in the past decade, almost all of them for African-American families, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Josh Walden, the center’s chief operating officer, told me that it had mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina. He said that investors hoping to build golf courses or hotels can target these plots. “We had to be really mindful that we didn’t share those maps with anyone, because otherwise they’d be a shopping catalogue,” he told me. “And it’s not as if it dries up. New heirs’ property is being created every day.”

Through interviews and courthouse records, I analyzed more than three dozen cases from recent years in which heirs’ property owners lost land — land that, for many of them, was not only their sole asset but also a critical part of their heritage and their sense of home. The problem has been especially acute in Carteret County. Beaufort, the county seat, was once the site of a major refugee camp for freed people. Black families eventually built homes near where the tents had stood. But in the 1970s the town became a tourist destination, with upscale restaurants, boutiques, and docks for yachts. Real-estate values surged, and out-of-town speculators flooded the county. David Cecelski, a historian of the North Carolina coast, told me, “You can’t talk to an African-American family who owned land in those counties and not find a story where they feel like land was taken from them against their will, through legal trickery.”

Beaufort is a quaint town, lined with coastal cottages and Colonial homes. When I arrived, last fall, I drove 20 miles to Silver Dollar Road, where Melvin and Licurtis’ family lives in dozens of trailers and wood-panelled houses, scattered under pine and gum trees.

Melvin and Licurtis’ mother, Gertrude, greeted me at her house and led me into her living room, where porcelain angels lined one wall. Gertrude is tough and quiet, her high voice muffled by tobacco that she packs into her cheek. People call her Mrs. Big Shit. “It’s because I didn’t pay them no mind,” she told me. The last of Mitchell Reels’ children to remain on the property, she is the family matriarch. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews let themselves into her house to pick up mail or take out her trash. Around dinnertime on the day I was there, the trickle of visitors turned into a crowd. Gertrude went into the kitchen, coated fish fillets with cornmeal and fried them for everyone.

Her daughter Mamie told me that Melvin and Licurtis had revelled in the land as kids, playing among the inky eels and conch shells. In the evenings, the brothers would sit on the porch with their cousins, a rag burning to keep the mosquitoes away. On weekends, a pastor strode down the dirt street, robed in white, his congregants singing “Wade in the Water.” Licurtis was a shy, humble kid who liked working in the cornfields. Melvin was his opposite. “When the school bus showed up, when he come home, the crowd would come with him and stay all night,” Gertrude said. When Melvin was 9, he built a boat from pine planks and began tugging it along the shore. A neighbor offered to teach him how to shrimp, and, in the summer, Melvin dropped nets off the man’s trawler. He left school in the 10th grade; his catch was bringing in around a thousand dollars a week. He developed a taste for sleek cars, big jewelry and women, and started buying his siblings Chuck Taylors and Timberlands.

Gertrude was the administrator of the estate. She’d left school in the eighth grade and wasn’t accustomed to navigating the judicial system, but after Mitchell’s death she secured a court ruling declaring that the land belonged to his heirs. The judgment read, “The surviving eleven (11) children or descendants of children of Mitchell Reels are the owners of the lands exclusive of any other claim of any one.”

In 1978, Gertrude’s uncle Shedrick Reels tried to carve out for himself the most valuable slice of land, on the river. He used a legal doctrine called adverse possession, which required him to prove that he had occupied the waterfront for years, continuously and publicly, against the owners’ wishes. Shedrick, who went by Shade and worked as a tire salesman in New Jersey, hadn’t lived on Silver Dollar Road in 27 years. But he claimed that “tenants” had stood in for him — he had built a house on the waterfront in 1950, and relatives had rented it or run it as a club at various times since. Some figured that it was Shade’s land. He also produced a deed that his father, Elijah, had given him in 1950, even though Mitchell, another of Elijah’s sons, had owned the land at the time.

Shade made his argument through an obscure law called the Torrens Act. Under Torrens, Shade didn’t have to abide by the formal rules of a court. Instead, he could simply prove adverse possession to a lawyer, whom the court appointed, and whom he paid. The Torrens Act has long had a bad reputation, especially in Carteret. “It’s a legal way to steal land,” Theodore Barnes, a land broker there, told me. The law was intended to help clear up muddled titles, but, in 1932, a law professor at the University of North Carolina found that it had been co-opted by big business. One lawyer said that people saw it as a scheme “whereby rich men could seize the lands of the poor.” Even Shade’s lawyer, Nelson Taylor, acknowledged that it was abused; he told me that his own grandfather had lost a 50-acre plot to Torrens. “First time he knew anything about it was when somebody told him that he didn’t own it anymore,” Taylor said. “That was happening more often than it ever should have.”

Mitchell’s kids and grandkids were puzzled that Shade’s maneuver was legal—they had Mitchell’s deed and a court order declaring that the land was theirs. And they had all grown up on that waterfront. “How can they take this land from us and we on it?” Melvin said. “We been there all our days.” Gertrude’s brother Calvin, who handled legal matters for the family, hired Claud Wheatly III, the son of one of the most powerful lawyers in town, to represent the siblings at a Torrens hearing about the claim. Gertrude, Melvin and his cousin Ralphele Reels, the only surviving heirs who attended the hearing, said that they left confident that the waterfront hadn’t gone to Shade. “No one in the family thought at the end of the day that it was his land and we were going to walk away from it forever,” Ralphele told me.

Wheatly told me a different story. In his memory, the Torrens hearing was chaotic, but the heirs agreed to give Shade, who has since died, the waterfront. When I pressed Wheatly, he conceded that not all the heirs liked the outcome, but he said that Calvin had consented. “I would have been upset if Calvin had not notified them, because I generally don’t get involved in those things without having a family representative in charge,” he told me. He said that he never had a written agreement with Calvin — just a conversation. (Calvin died shortly after the hearing.) The lawyer examining Shade’s case granted him the waterfront, and Wheatly signed off on the decision. The Reels family, though it didn’t yet know it, had lost the rights to the land on the shoreline.

Licurtis had set up a trailer near the river a couple of years earlier, in 1977. He was working as a brick mason and often hosted men from the neighborhood for Budweiser and beans in the evenings. Melvin had become the center of a local economy on the shore. He taught the men how to work the water, and he paid the women to prepare his catch, pressing the soft crevice above the shrimps’ eyes and popping off their heads. He had a son, Little Melvin, and in the summers his nephews and cousins came to the beach, too. One morning, he took eight of them out on the water and then announced that he’d made a mistake: only four were allowed on the boat. He threw them overboard one by one. “We’re thinking, We’re gonna drown,” one cousin told me. “And he jumps off the boat with us and teaches us how to swim.”

In 1982, Melvin and Gertrude received a trespassing notice from Shade. They took it to a lawyer, who informed them that Shade now legally owned a little more than 13 acres of the 65-acre plot. The family was stunned, and suspicious of the claim’s validity. Many of the tenants listed to prove Shade’s continuous possession were vague or unrecognizable, like “Mitchell Reels’ boy,” or “Julian Leonard,” whom Gertrude had never heard of. (She had a sister named Julia and a brother named Leonard but no memory of either one living on the waterfront.) The lawyer who granted the land to Shade had also never reported the original court ruling that Gertrude had won, as he should have done.

Shade’s ownership would be almost impossible to overturn. There’s a one-year window to appeal a Torrens decision in North Carolina, and the family had missed it by two years. Soon afterward, Shade sold the land to developers.

The Reelses knew that if condos or a marina were built on the waterfront the remaining 50 acres of Silver Dollar Road could be taxed not as small homes on swampy fields but as a high-end resort. If they fell behind on the higher taxes, the county could auction off their property. “It would break our family right up,” Melvin told me. “You leave here, you got no more freedom.”

This kind of tax sale has a long history in the dispossession of heirs’ property owners. In 1992, the NAACP accused local officials of intentionally inflating taxes to push out black families on Daufuskie, a South Carolina sea island that has become one of the hottest real-estate markets on the Atlantic coast. Property taxes had gone up as much as 700% in a single decade. “It is clear that the county has pursued a pattern of conduct that disproportionately displaces or evicts African-Americans from Daufuskie, thereby segregating the island and the county as a whole,” the NAACP wrote to county officials. Nearby Hilton Head, which as recently as two decades ago comprised several thousand acres of heirs’ property, now, by one estimate, has a mere 200 such acres left. Investors fly into the county each October to bid on tax-delinquent properties in a local gymnasium.

In the upscale town of Summerville, South Carolina, I met Wendy Reed, who, in 2012, was late paying $83.81 in taxes on the lot she had lived on for nearly four decades. A former state politician named Thomas Limehouse, who owned a luxury hotel nearby, bought Reed’s property at a tax sale for $2,000, about an eighth of its value. Reed had a year to redeem her property, but, when she tried to pay her debt, officials told her that she couldn’t get the land back, because she wasn’t officially listed as her grandmother’s heir; she’d have to go through probate court. Here she faced another obstacle: heirs in South Carolina have 10 years to probate an estate after the death of the owner, and Reed’s grandmother had died 30 years before. Tax clerks in the county estimate that each year they send about a quarter of the people who try to redeem delinquent property to probate court because they aren’t listed on the deed or named by the court as an heir. Limehouse told me, “To not probate the estate and not pay the taxes shouldn’t be a reason for special dispensation. When you let things go, you can’t blame the county.” Reed has been fighting the case in court since 2014. “I’m still not leaving,” she told me. “You’ll have to pack my stuff and put me off.”

For years, the conflict on Silver Dollar Road was dormant, and Melvin continued expanding his businesses. Each week, Gertrude packed two-pound bags of shrimp to sell at the farmers’ market, along with petunias and gardenias from her yard. Melvin was also remodelling a night club, Fantasy Island, on the shore. He’d decked it out with disco lights and painted it white, he said, so that “on the water it would shine like gold.”

The majority of the property remained in the family, including the land on which Gertrude’s house stood. But Licurtis had been building a home in place of his trailer on the contested waterfront. “It was the most pretty spot,” he told me. “I’d walk to the water, and look at my yard, and see how beautiful it was.” He’d collected the signatures of other heirs to prove that he had permission, and registered a deed.

When real-estate agents or speculators came to the shore, Melvin tried to scare them away. A developer told me that once, when he showed the property to potential buyers, “Melvin had a roof rack behind his pickup, jumped out, snatched a gun out.” It wasn’t the only time that Melvin took out his rifle. “You show people that you got to protect yourself,” he told me. “Any fool who wouldn’t do that would be crazy.” His instinct had always been to confront a crisis head on. When hurricanes came through and most people sought higher ground, he’d go out to his trawler and steer it into the storm.

The Reels family began to believe that there was a conspiracy against them. They watched Jet Skis crawl slowly past in the river and shiny SUVs drive down Silver Dollar Road; they suspected that people were scouting the property. Melvin said that he received phone calls from mysterious men issuing threats. “I thought people were out to get me,” he said. Gertrude remembers that, one day at the farmers’ market, a white customer sneered that she was the only thing standing in the way of development.

In 1986, Billie Dean Brown, a partner at a real-estate investment company called Adams Creek Associates, had bought Shade’s waterfront plot sight unseen to divide and sell. Brown was attracted to the strength of the Torrens title, which he knew was effectively incontrovertible. When he discovered that Melvin and Licurtis lived on the property, he wasn’t troubled. Brown was known among colleagues as Little Caesar — a small man who finished any job he started. In the early 2000s, he hired a lawyer: Claud Wheatly III. The man once tasked with protecting the Reels family’s land was now being paid to evict them from it. Melvin and Licurtis saw Wheatly’s involvement as a clear conflict of interest. Their lawyers tried to disqualify Wheatly, arguing that he was breaching confidentiality and switching sides, but the judge denied the motions.

Earlier this year, I met Wheatly in his office, a few blocks from the county courthouse. Tall and imposing, he has a ruddy face and a teal-blue stare. We sat under the head of a stuffed warthog, and he chewed tobacco as we spoke. He told me that he had no confidential information about the Reelses, and that he’d never represented Melvin and Licurtis; he’d represented their mother and her siblings. “Melvin won’t own one square inch until his mother dies,” he said.

In 2004, Wheatly got a court order prohibiting the brothers from going on the waterfront property. The Reels family began a series of appeals and filings asking for the decree to be set aside, but judge after judge ruled that the family had waited too long to contest the Torrens decision.

Licurtis didn’t talk about the case, and tried to hide his stress. But, Mamie told me, “you could see him wearing it.” Occasionally, she would catch a glimpse of him pacing the road early in the morning. When he first understood that he could face time in jail for remaining in his house, he tried removing the supports underneath it, thinking that he could hire someone to wrench the foundation from the mud and move it elsewhere. Gertrude wouldn’t allow him to go through with it. “You’re not going with the house nowhere,” she told him. “That’s yours.”

At 4 a.m. on a spring day in 2007, Melvin was asleep in his apartment above the club when he heard a boom, like a crash of thunder. He went to the shore and found that his trawler, named Nancy J., was sinking. Yellow plastic gloves, canned beans and wooden crab boxes floated in the water. There was a large hole in the hull, and Melvin realized that the boom had been an explosion. He filed a report with the sheriff’s office, but it never confirmed whether an explosive was used or whether it was an accident, and no charges were filed. Melvin began to wake with a start at night, pull out his flashlight, and scan the fields for intruders.

By the time of the brothers’ hearing in 2011, Melvin had lost so much weight that Licurtis joked that he could store water in the caverns by his collarbones. The family had come to accept that the dispute wasn’t going away. If the brothers had to go to jail, they would. Even after the judge in the hearing found them guilty of civil contempt, Melvin said, “I ain’t backing down.” Licurtis called home later that day. “It’ll be all right,” he told Gertrude. “We’ll be home soon.”

One of the most pernicious legal mechanisms used to dispossess heirs’ property owners is called a partition action. In the course of generations, heirs tend to disperse and lose any connection to the land. Speculators can buy off the interest of a single heir, and just one heir or speculator, no matter how minute his share, can force the sale of an entire plot through the courts. Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, told me that even small financial incentives can have the effect of turning relatives against one another, and developers exploit these divisions. “You need to have some willing participation from black families — driven by the desire to profit off their land holdings,” Kahrl said. “But it does boil down to greed and abuse of power and the way in which Americans’ history of racial inequality can be used to the advantage of developers.” As the Reels family grew over time, the threat of a partition sale mounted; if one heir decided to sell, the whole property would likely go to auction at a price that none of them could pay.

When courts originally gained the authority to order a partition sale, around the time of the Civil War, the Wisconsin Supreme Court called it “an extraordinary and dangerous power” that should be used sparingly. In the past several decades, many courts have favored such sales, arguing that the value of a property in its entirety is greater than the value of it in pieces. But the sales are often speedy and poorly advertised, and tend to fetch below-market prices.

On the coast of North Carolina, I met Billy Freeman, who grew up working in the parking lot of his uncle’s beachside dance hall, Monte Carlo by the Sea. His family, which once owned thousands of acres, ran the largest black beach in the state, with juke joints and crab shacks, an amusement park and a three-story hotel. But, over the decades, developers acquired interests from other heirs, and, in 2008, one firm petitioned the court for a sale of the whole property. Freeman attempted to fight the partition for years. “I didn’t want to lose the land, but I felt like everybody else had sold,” he told me. In 2016, the beach, which covered 170 acres, was sold to the development firm for $1.4 million. On neighboring beaches, that sum could buy a tiny fraction of a parcel so large. Freeman got only $30,000.

The lost property isn’t just money; it’s also identity. In one case that I examined, the mining company PCS Phosphate forced the sale of a 40-acre plot, which contained a family cemetery, against the wishes of several heirs, whose ancestors had been enslaved on the property. (A spokesperson for the company told me that it is a “law-abiding corporate citizen.”)

Some speculators use questionable tactics to acquire property. When Jessica Wiggins’ uncle called her to say that a man was trying to buy his interest in their family’s land, she didn’t believe him; he had dementia. Then, in 2015, she learned that a company called Aldonia Farms had purchased the interests of four heirs, including her uncle, and had filed a partition action. “What got me was we had no knowledge of this person,” Wiggins told me, of the man who ran Aldonia. (Jonathan S. Phillips, who now runs Aldonia Farms, told me that he wasn’t there at the time of the purchase, and that he’s confident no one would have taken advantage of the uncle’s dementia.) Wiggins was devastated; the 18 acres of woods and farmland that held her great-grandmother’s house was the place that she had felt safest as a child. The remaining heirs still owned 61% of the property, but there was little that they could do to prevent a sale. When I visited the land with Wiggins, her great-grandmother’s house had been cleared, and Aldonia Farms had erected a gate. Phillips told me, “Our intention was not to keep them out but to be good stewards of the property and keep it from being littered on and vandalized.”

Last fall, Wiggins and her relatives gathered for the auction of the property on the courthouse steps in the town of Windsor. A bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood behind them. Wiggins’ cousin Danita Pugh walked up to Aldonia Farms’ lawyer and pulled her deed out of an envelope. “You’re telling me that they’re going to auction it off after showing you a deed?” she said. “I’m going to come out and say it. The white man takes the land from the black.”

Hundreds of partition actions are filed in North Carolina every year. Carteret County, which has a population of 70,000, has one of the highest per-capita rates in the state. I read through every Carteret partition case concerning heirs’ property from the past decade, and found that 42% of the cases involved black families, despite the fact that only 6% of Carteret’s population is black. Heirs not only regularly lose their land; they are also required to pay the legal fees of those who bring the partition cases. In 2008, Janice Dyer, a research associate at Auburn University, published a study of these actions in Macon County, Alabama. She told me that the lack of secure ownership locks black families out of the wealth in their property. “The Southeast has these amazing natural resources: timber, land, great fishing,” she said. “If somebody could snap their fingers and clear up all these titles, how much richer would the region be?”

Thomas W. Mitchell, a property-law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, has drafted legislation aimed at reforming this system, which has now passed in 14 states. He told me that heirs’ property owners, particularly those who are African-American, tend to be “land rich and cash poor,” making it difficult for them to keep the land in a sale. “They don’t have the resources to make competitive bids, and they can’t even use their heirs’ property as collateral to get a loan to participate in the bidding more effectively,” he said. His law, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, gives family members the first option to buy, sends most sales to the open market, and mandates that courts, in their decisions to order sales, weigh non-economic factors, such as the consequences of eviction and whether the property has historic value. North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has held out against these reforms. The state also hasn’t repealed the Torrens Act. It is one of fewer than a dozen states where the law is still on the books.

Last year, Congress passed the Agricultural Improvement Act, which, among other things, allows heirs’ property owners to apply for Department of Agriculture programs using nontraditional paperwork, such as a written agreement between heirs. “The alternative documentation is really, really important as a precedent,” Lorette Picciano, the executive director of Rural Coalition, a group that advocated for the reform, told me. “The next thing we need to do is make sure this happens with FEMA, and flood insurance, and housing programs.” The bill also includes a lending program for heirs’ property owners, which will make it easier for them to clear titles and develop succession plans. But no federal funding has been allocated for these loans.

The first time I met Melvin and Licurtis in the Carteret jail, Melvin filled the entire frame of the visiting-room window. He is a forceful presence, and prone to exaggeration. His hair, neatly combed, was streaked with silver. He didn’t blink as he spoke. Licurtis had been given a diagnosis of diabetes, and leaned against a stool for support. He still acted like a younger brother, never interrupting Melvin or challenging his memory. He told me that, at night, he dreamed of the shore, of storms blowing through his house. “The water rising,” Licurtis said. “And I couldn’t do nothing about it.” He was worried about his mother. “If they took this land from my mama at her age, and she’d been farming it all her life, you know that would kill her,” he told me.

The brothers were seen as local heroes for resisting the court order. “They want to break your spirits,” their niece Kim Duhon wrote to them. “God had you both picked out for this.” Even strangers wrote. “When I was a kid, it used to sadden me that white folks had Radio Island, Atlantic Beach, Sea Gate and other places to swim, but we didn’t!” one letter from a local woman read. She wrote that, when she was finally taken to Silver Dollar Road, “I remember seeing nothing but my own kind (Blk Folks!).”

In North Carolina, civil contempt is most commonly used to force defendants to pay child support. When the ruling requires a defendant to pay money other than child support, a new hearing is held every 90 days. After the first 90 days had passed, Melvin asked a friend in jail to write a letter on his behalf. (Melvin couldn’t read well, and he needed help writing.) “I’ve spent 91 days on a 90 day sentence and I don’t understand why,” the letter read. “Please explain this to me! So I can go home, back to work. Sincerely, Melvin Davis.” The brothers learned that although Billie Dean Brown’s lawyer had asked for 90 days, the court had decided that there would be no time restriction on their case, and that they could be jailed until they presented evidence that they had removed their homes. They continued to hold out. Brown wasn’t demolishing their buildings while they were incarcerated, and so they believed that they still had a shot at convincing the courts that the land was theirs. That fall, Brown told the Charlotte Observer, “I made up my mind, I will die and burn in hell before I walk away from this thing.” When I reached Brown recently, he told me that he was in an impossible position. “We’ve had several offers from buyers, but once they learned of the situation they withdrew,” he said.

Three months turned into six, and a year turned into several. Jail began to take a toll on the brothers. The facility was designed for short stays, with no time outside, and nowhere to exercise. They couldn’t be transferred to a prison, because they hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Early on, Melvin mediated fights between inmates and persuaded them to sneak in hair ties for him. But over time he stopped taking care of his appearance and became withdrawn. He ranted about the stolen land, though he couldn’t quite nail down who the enemy was: Shade or Wheatly or Brown, the sheriffs or the courts or the county. The brothers slept head to head in neighboring beds. “Melvin would say crazy things,” Licurtis told me. “Lay on down and go to sleep, wake up, and say the same thing again. It wore me down.” Melvin is proud and guarded, but he told me that the case had broken him. “I’m not ashamed to own it,” he said. “This has messed my mind up.”

Without the brothers, Silver Dollar Road lost its pulse. Mamie kept her blinds down; she couldn’t stand to see the deserted waterfront. At night, she studied her brothers’ case, thumbing through the court files and printing out the definitions of words that she didn’t understand, like “rescind” and “contempt.” She filled a binder with relatives’ obituaries, so that once her brothers got out they would have a record of who had passed away. When Claud Wheatly’s father died, she added his obituary. “I kept him for history,” she told me.

Gertrude didn’t have the spirit to farm. Most days, she sat in a tangerine armchair by her window, cracking peanuts or watching the shore like a guard. This winter, we looked out in silence as Brown’s caretaker drove through the property. Melvin and Licurtis wouldn’t allow Gertrude to visit them in jail. Licurtis said that “it hurt so bad” to see her leave.

Other members of the family — Melvin and Licurtis’ brother Billy, their nephew Roderick and their cousin Shawn — kept trying to shrimp, but the river suddenly seemed barren. “It might sound crazy, but it was like the good Lord put a curse on this little creek, where ain’t nobody gonna catch no shrimp until they’re released,” Roderick told me. Billy added, “It didn’t feel right no more with Melvin and them not there, because we all looked out for one another. Some mornings, you didn’t even want to go.”

Sheriff’s deputies came to the property a few times a week, and they wouldn’t allow the men to dock their boats on the pier. One by one, the men lost hope and sold their trawlers. Shawn took a job at Best Buy, cleaning the store for $11.50 an hour, and eventually moved to Newport, 30 miles southwest, where it was easier to make rent. Billy got paid to fix roofs but soon defaulted on the mortgage for his house on Silver Dollar Road. “One day you good, and the next day you can’t believe it,” he told me.

Roderick kept being charged with trespassing, for walking on the waterfront, and he was racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees. He’d recently renovated his boat — putting in an aluminum gas tank, large spotlights and West Marine speakers — but, without a place to dock, he saw no way to hold on to it. He found work cutting grass and posted his boat on Craigslist. A white man responded. They met at the shore, and, as the man paid, Roderick began to cry. He walked up Silver Dollar Road with his back to the river. He told me, “I just didn’t want to see my boat leave.”

The Reels brothers were locked in a hopeless clash with the law. One judge who heard their case likened them to the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who attempts to guard his forest against King Arthur. “Even after King Arthur has cut off both of the Black Knight’s arms and legs, he still insists that he will continue to fight and that no one may pass — although he cannot do anything,” the judge wrote, in an appeals-court dissent.

In February, nearly eight years after Melvin and Licurtis went to jail, they stood before a judge in Carteret to request their release. They were now 72 and 61, but they remained defiant. Licurtis said that he would go back on the property “just as soon as I walk out of here.” Melvin said, “I believe that land is mine.” They had hired a new lawyer, who argued that it would cost almost $50,000 to tear down the brothers’ homes. Melvin had less than $4,000 in the bank; Licurtis had nothing. The judge announced that he was releasing them. He warned them, however, that if they returned to their homes they’d “be right back in jail.” He told them, “The jailhouse keys are in your pockets.”

An hour later, the brothers emerged from the sheriff’s department. Melvin surveyed the parking lot, which was crowded with friends and relatives. “About time!” he said, laughing and exchanging hugs. “You stuck with me.” When he spotted Little Melvin, who was now 39, he extended his arm for a handshake. Little Melvin pulled it closer and buried his face in his father’s shoulder, sobbing.

When Licurtis came out, he folded over, as if his breath had been pulled out of him. Mamie wrapped her arms around his neck, led him to her car, and drove him home. When they reached Silver Dollar Road, she honked the horn all the way down the street. “Back on Silver Dollar Road,” Licurtis said, pines flickering by his window. “Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm.”

Melvin spent his first afternoon shopping for silk shirts and brown leather shoes and a cell phone that talked to him. Old acquaintances stopped him — a man who thanked him for his advice about hauling dirt, a DJ who used to spin at Fantasy Island. While in jail, Melvin had been keeping up with his girlfriends, and 11 women called looking for him.

Melvin told me that he’d held on for his family, and for himself, too. But away from the others his weariness showed. He acknowledged that he was worried about what would happen, his voice almost a whisper. “They can’t keep on doing this. There’s got to be an ending somewhere,” he said.

A few days later, Gertrude threw her sons a party, and generations of relatives came. The family squeezed together on her armchairs, eating chili and biscuits and lemon pie. Mamie gave a speech. “We gotta get this water back,” she said, stretching her arms wide. “We gotta unite. A chain’s only as strong as the links in it.” The room answered, “That’s right.” The brothers, who were staying with their mother, kept saying, “Once we get this land stuff sorted out . . .” Relatives who had left talked about coming back, buying boats and go-karts for their kids. It was less a plan than a fantasy — an illusion that their sense of justice could overturn the decision of the law.

The brothers hadn’t stepped onto the waterfront since they’d been back. The tract was 100 feet away but out of reach. Fantasy Island was a shell, the plot around it overgrown. Still, Melvin seemed convinced that he would restore it. “Put me some palm trees in the sand and build some picnic tables,” he said.

After the party wound down, I sat with Licurtis on his mother’s porch as he gazed at his house, which was moldy and gutted, its frame just visible in the purple dusk. He reminisced about the house’s wood-burning heater, the radio that he’d always left playing. He said that he planned to build a second story and raise the house to protect it from floods. He wanted a wraparound deck and big windows. “I’ll pour them walls solid all the way around,” he said. “We’ll bloom again. Ain’t going to be long.”

Any discussion of reparations must include how this happened, who did it, and the laws, policies and practices that allowed it.

A House Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday held the first hearing in over a decade on the issue of reparations for black Americans. The hearing took place, fittingly, on the Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the announcement of the end of slavery in the United States, and five years after the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who testified, reignited the debate with his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations.” Once a fringe topic, reparations has emerged as an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, with several leading candidates for the Democratic nomination expressing support for various measures to atone for America’s racist past.

Thanks to Mr. Coates and others, today’s movement for reparations places as much emphasis on the racist public policies of the 20th century, which denied black Americans opportunities to build wealth and left them vulnerable to all manner of economic exploitation, as it does on the crimes of slavery. Many leading proponents of reparations point to the federal government’s failure to provide land and resources (40 acres and a mule) to former slaves following emancipation, as promised, as laying the course for today’s inequities. “Had such a racial land reform taken place,” the Duke University economist William Darity Jr. argues, “it is easy to envision that the vast current differences in wealth between black and nonblacks would not exist.” Mr. Darity has gone so far as to use the ungranted 40 acres of land that was due former slaves as the basis for calculating the amount of reparations due to their descendants today.

But in addition to invoking the 40 acres black people never got, the reparations movement today should be talking about the approximately 11 million acres black people had but lost, in many cases through fraud, deception and outright theft, much of it taken in the past 50 years.

These property holdings could have provided a foundation for black wealth-building in post-Jim Crow America. Instead, they became a source of riches for others. Rather than helping to close the racial wealth gap, blacks’ landholdings became a key force in widening it. Black land-taking has been as instrumental as the denial of opportunities to acquire property in creating today’s racial wealth inequality and offers a more telling indicator of the barriers to upward mobility black people faced — and continue to face — in America.

Understanding how this happened, identifying who did it and addressing the laws, policies and practices that allowed — and continue to allow — it to happen must be at the center of any discussion of reparations.

In the decades after the end of Reconstruction, as the nation abandoned its black citizens and the South descended into the age of Jim Crow, African-Americans succeeded, against all odds, in acquiring a remarkable amount of land. By 1910, black people claimed ownership of nearly 16 million acres in America. They did so in spite of the constant threat of forced dispossession at the hands of white mobs and officials. Sometimes, black property owners faced sudden and violent attacks, such as the racial cleansing of Forsyth County, Ga., in 1912 and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921.

As often, though, whites undermined black property ownership by more subtle means. White tax assessors routinely overvalued black-owned land, forcing black property owners to bear a heavier tax burden than whites (to pay for services they didn’t receive) and slowly draining families of earnings. If black-owned property became valuable or a black property owner challenged white supremacy, local officials could simply declare the property tax-delinquent and sell it at a tax sale. Writing in 1940, the N.A.A.C.P. special counsel Thurgood Marshall described the manipulation of tax-delinquency laws by white officials in the South as a practice and custom of “depriving Negroes of their property through subterfuge.”

Despite this, at the dawn of the civil rights era, African-Americans still held substantial amounts of land, mostly in the South, a major portion of which was in some of the region’s fastest-growing areas and hottest real estate markets. Thanks to huge federal investments during the New Deal, the South in the mid-20th century went from being what President Franklin Roosevelt described as the “nation’s No. 1 economic problem” in the 1930s to the booming Sun Belt by the 1960s. The region’s rapid growth, along with the emergence of new industries like vacationing and tourism in rural and coastal areas, created an insatiable demand for land and made black property owners targets for removal by white officials and plunder by profit-seeking speculators. Both exploited the byproducts of blacks’ history of oppression to achieve their objectives.

The story of Evelina Jenkins, a black South Carolina Sea Islands native, offers a case in point. She owned dozens of acres of property — including an entire island — at a time in the early 1970s when land values along the state’s coastline were skyrocketing. As a result of the state’s pitiful expenditures on “colored” schools, Ms. Jenkins had received only minimal education and never learned to read. Decades of disfranchisement and white control of local government and the courts had taught her that whatever rights and protections it afforded did not apply to her. Even venturing inside the local government offices where people registered for licenses or paid their taxes was an invitation to be mistreated and humiliated, and was something to avoid.

So Ms. Jenkins entrusted a white neighbor who had befriended her to take her annual property tax payments to town for her. But rather than submitting Ms. Jenkins’s payments, he pocketed them, then waited for her taxes to fall delinquent, whereupon he bought the lien to her property at the county’s annual tax auction. Then, after the statutory redemption window closed, he gained title to her landholdings, island and all, which he subsequently resold to a developer. In the decades since, the land Jenkins once owned has generated untold amounts of wealth. Houses on the island she once owned today sell for upward of $400,000. Ms. Jenkins, though, never saw a dime of it. Rather than leave her children an ample inheritance, she died penniless, forced to live out her last days in her daughter’s mobile home.

While Ms. Jenkins’s case was particularly egregious, the legal theft of black land in similar ways was not uncommon. In booming real estate markets like Hilton Head and surrounding Sea Islands, tax sales afforded investors a lucrative opportunity to acquire valuable property for pennies on the dollar. Here and elsewhere, local tax assessors served as accessories before the fact, deliberately overvaluing black-owned land or enacting sharp, capricious assessment spikes as development crept near, all aimed at forcing poor black farming families to sell under duress or steering them into tax delinquency.

Tax sales were just one of several ways speculators and developers manipulated property and tax laws, and exploited historic inequities, to expropriate black people’s land. Another was the forced partition sale. Because whites controlled the courts, blacks who acquired property during Jim Crow often opted to handle matters of inheritance informally, outside of the legal system. Instead of probating their wills, black property owners tended to bequeath their property to descendants in the form of undivided shares — an arrangement under which heirs become co-owners of a property, each with the right to sell his or her own interest. Predatory land speculators would search for a person who had recently inherited land this way and was willing to sell his or her share. Once the sale went through, the speculator — now a co-owner of the property — would have the right to petition the courts to order a sale of the entire tract of land (against the wishes of those family members who lived on it) and would then buy it.

These partition sales invariably resulted in the land being sold at well below its market value, enriching the buyer while leaving the displaced and dispossessed family members with nothing. Speculators have used this legal trick to force the sale of millions of acres of black-owned land over the past several decades. Only in the past couple of years have some states begun to adopt a uniform law designed to curb the most predatory abuses of heirs property laws. Much of the damage, though, has been done.

Indeed, many of the techniques used to take black-owned land remain legal today. The tax-sale law that allowed someone to steal Ms. Jenkins’s land remains on the books in South Carolina and many other states, and continues to be used to extract wealth from poor and vulnerable communities across America. Tax buying thrived in the wake of the 2008 housing foreclosure crisis, as the number of tax-delinquent homes mushroomed, and today in gentrifying cities, where rising property assessments function as a self-fulfilling prophecy, predicting the changes local officials hope to bring and forcing low-income people out.

Many local governments have resisted calls to protect homeowners from predatory tax buying and have instead sought to increase profitability for investors; other cities have taken aggressive steps to foreclose on tax-delinquent properties. Between 2011 and 2015, Detroit initiated tax foreclosures on one out of every four properties in the city, an epidemic of tax delinquency caused, in large measure, by the illegal over-assessment of lower-valued properties. Then and now, the victims of discriminatory overtaxation and predatory tax buying are disproportionately black.

These continuing practices, more than the government’s broken promise of 40 acres and a mule 150 years ago, explain why black families today have 10 cents to every dollar held by white households and why that gap continues to widen. It’s why the history of black land-taking should be at the center of the reparations debate, not only because the scale of the loss was so great but also because it forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that American prosperity has not bypassed black Americans so much as it has come directly at their expense. It’s no coincidence that African-American communities on the Sea Islands suffered their heaviest land losses in the 1970s and 1980s, the same decades when the area experienced its most rapid economic growth.

Indeed, slavery and Jim Crow not only excluded generations of black Americans from benefits and opportunities enjoyed by white Americans; it also exposed them to the most predatory features of our capitalist system. It turned black people’s earnest attempts to build wealth the American way — through property ownership — into an opportunity for others to profit at their expense.

If we ever hope to repair the damage racism has done to America, and address the dividends it continues to pay to white Americans, we cannot simply open to black Americans previously closed doors of opportunity or merely provide some form of compensation for past injustices. We must also work to dismantle the laws and policies that sanction the continued extraction of property and resources from black communities.

#IllegalForeclosures: What’s happening?

Detroit Metro Times: Study finds Detroit’s foreclosure crisis fueled by illegal tax assessments

According to a soon-to-be-published study conducted by a visiting Wayne State University law professor and an assistant professor of economics at Oakland University, Detroit assessed 55 to 85 percent of properties in violation of the Michigan constitution every year from 2009 to 2015. And the assessments were, at times, far above the legal limit: The study found that in 2010, assessments were on average more than seven times higher than the legal limit. In 2015, they were more than twice higher

“Those numbers are completely and utterly shocking,” study co-author Bernadette Atuahene told a crowd at a July 8 news conference at a church in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood. “People knew these foreclosures were unfair, but they were unable to articulate they were more than unfair — they were unconstitutional. And that’s important because when you speak to authorities about [the root of the tax foreclosure crisis in Detroit], the answer you’ll get is that it’s because Detroiters are poor, because of high unemployment, because of poor job training. That’s not what’s happening. This is a structural injustice happening that starts with the assessor’s office in Detroit.”

Atuahene’s findings mirror claims made in a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP against the City of Detroit and others. The lawsuit says the city failed to reduce property assessments to reflect massive declines in home values following the recession. Detroit’s top attorney has said the claim is “fatally flawed as any potential claim was discharged in bankruptcy.” Butch Hollowell also called the suit “recklessly irresponsible,” because “it would violate compliance with [Detroit’s bankruptcy] Plan of Adjustment, indefinitely prolong state oversight of city operations and threaten basic city services to all Detroiters.”

As the ACLU suit looks for a legal remedy for Detroiters who’ve lost properties that were overassessed, a coalition that has mobilized around Atuahene’s work is hoping to arrive at a political solution. The Coalition to Stop Unconstitutional Tax Assessments has called on Mayor Mike Duggan’s office to offer compensation to those victimized by the inflated assessments and to issue an across-the-board cut in assessments of lower-value homes.

End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures

  1. From 2011-2015, 1 in 4 Detroit properties were foreclosed upon.
  2. The Michigan Constitution states that no property shall be assessed at more than 50% of its market value.
  3. Between 2009-2015, 55-85% of Detroit properties were assessed in violation of the Michigan Constitution.
  4. The lowest valued homes (bottom fifth) were assessed at levels, on average, 18 times the constitutional limit.
  5. The highest valued homes (top fifth) were assessed, on average, below the constitutional limit.

The Human Impact of Illegal Foreclosures: Interview with Sonja Bonnett

Democray Now: As Downtown Detroit Gentrifies, Longtime Black Residents Fight Illegal Tax Foreclosures

Subprime Loans and Reverse Redlining

  • Subprime loans
    • Designed for those with bad or non-existing credit histories
    • Offer less favorable terms for borrowers than prime loans.
    • Because there’s more risk to lenders, subprime loans typically cost the borrower more
  • Reverse-redlining
    • Banks and financial institutions, like Wells Fargo and Countrywide, that once ignored minorities
      • Are now targeting them to make money from risking subprime loans
    • Mortgage brokers got kickbacks for locking borrowers into subprime loans
  • In 2006 at the height of the housing boom:
    • Blacks were 2.8x more likely to be denied for a regular loan
      • Latinos were 2x more likely
    • Blacks and Latinos were 2.4x more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants
      • Black/ Latino families making more $200,000 were more likely to be given a subprime loan
        • Than a white family making less than $30,000
      • “As the early-2000s housing bubble was peaking, African Americans were 50% more likely than their white peers to receive a subprime loan. Those loans, it is widely understood today, were more expensive and carried higher interest rates. The terms of these loans increased the probability of their failure, and their concentration in Black neighborhoods promised not just to ruin an individual’s credit but to undermine the stability of entire communities. The real-estate industry created the idea that Black homeowners posed a risk to the housing market and then profited from financial tools promoted as mitigating that risk.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent
  • Black families were 2x as likely to enter foreclosure during the 2008 recession than whites
    • “Not only did the crisis wipe out decades’ worth of hard-won financial gains for African Americans, but it stole their homes as well. In 2010 almost half a million African Americans were at risk of foreclosure, and by 2014 more than 240,000 had lost their homes. This historic collapse in Black homeownership is an important part of why the wealth gap between Black and white Americans is larger today than it has been in decades. In 2007, right before the crash, the median white family had eight times the wealth of the median Black family. By 2013, that figure had risen to eleven times, and it has tapered off only slightly since.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent

“In 2000, 41 percent of all borrowers with subprime loans would have qualified for conventional financing with lower rates, a figure that increased to 61 percent in 2006. By then, African American mortgage recipients had subprime loans at three times the rate of white borrowers. Higher-income African Americans had subprime mortgages at four times the rate of higher-income whites. Even though its own survey in 2005 revealed a similar racial discrepancy, the Federal Reserve did not take action. By failing to curb discrimination that its own data disclosed, the Federal Reserve violated African Americans’ legal and constitutional rights.

In 2010, the Justice Department agreed that “[t]he more segregated a community of color is, the more likely it is that homeowners will face foreclosure because the lenders who peddled the most toxic loans targeted those communities.

The consequences of racially targeted subprime lending continue to accumulate. As the housing bubble collapsed, African American homeownership rates fell much more than white rates. Families no longer qualify for conventional mortgages if they previously defaulted when they were unable to make exorbitant loan payments; for these families, the contract buying system oft he 1960s is now making its return. Some of the same firms that exploited African Americans in the subprime crisis are now reselling foreclosed properties to low- and moderate-income households at high interest rates, with high down payments, with no equity accumulated until the contract period has ended, and with eviction possible after a single missed payment” Richard Rothstein, Color of Law

Impact of foreclosed homes isn’t limited to owner

  • Foreclosures
    • The effects multiply and spread out such as:
      • Depressing property values in entire communities
      • Less attractive to homebuyers
      • Hurts the quality of schools and other public institutions
        • Which depresses home values further and destroys local economies
      • Starts a reinforcing cycle of dysfunction
  • Banks like Wells Fargo/US Bank/Bank of America
    • Accused of repeatedly neglecting foreclosed minority homes while maintaining white foreclosed homes

“In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself. According to The New York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and to their subprime products as “ghetto loans.”

“We just went right after them… Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.” Beth Jacobson, a former Wells Fargo loan

“In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit. The following year, Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million. But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71% of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.”” TaNehisi Coates – The Atlantic

White Ignorance and Resentment: Rick Santelli blames housing bubble on those who lost homes

“Rick Santelli’s target wasn’t the trillions of dollars in cash infusions and loan guarantees that George W Bush gifted to the mega banks…rather, he was incensed about Obama’s proposal to create a modest fund to help individual homeowners make their mortgage payments and stay in their homes” Ian Haney Lopez – Dog Whistle Politics


Further Readings

NY Times: Black People’s Land Was Stolen

The Atlantic Black Star: From 15 Million Acres to 1 Million: How Black People Lost Their Land

New Food Economy: How USDA distorted data to conceal decades of discrimination against black farmers

NY Times: Tourism Enriches an Island Resort, But Hilton Head Blacks Feel Left Out

Atlanta Black Star: 8 Heartbreaking Cases Where Land Was Stolen From Black Americans Through Racism, Violence and Murder

WUNC: Land Speculators Are Legally Forcing Black Southerners Off Family Land

AP: Kept out: How banks block people of color from homeownership

CNN: Wells Fargo accused of preying on black and Latino homebuyers in California

In These Times: Wells Fargo Shows Exactly How Structural Racism Works

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Racial History of Welfare

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Historical Racial Pattern of Welfare in US

  • During times of increased poverty
    • White people generally supported welfare programs along same racial stratification
      • Often excluded most people of color
        • Deemed by white people as “Undeserving poor”
      • Included mostly poor white people
        • Deemed by white people as “Deserving poor”
  • As forms of racial discrimination were outlawed (Great Society, civil rights bills)
    • More black people were allowed to join welfare programs
      • Helped increase the cost of welfare programs, despite white people still being largest benefactors`
    • Conservative politicians would capitalized on the fiscal impact and racial bias
      • By pushing narratives like
        • People of color were lazy, manipulative “ takers” taking white workers or “earners” hard earn money
      • Despite white people still being the majority benefactors of welfare
        • White oppositions towards welfare would grow
      • Neoliberal politicians purposely divested, deregulated, dismantled welfare programs
        • Increased blame on black people and pushed narrative black people were wasting funds
        • Pushed more dog whistle narratives that welfare:
          • Broke down the black family structure, created black dependencies, avoided black personal responsibilities
        • Allowed neo-liberal politicians to continue to dismantle social services while increasing wealth
        • Due to higher levels of poverty in communities of color caused by generations of systemic racism
          • Cost of welfare often would significantly go up as more people of color were included

“Nothing testifies to dog whistle racism’s transformation of American politics over the last half century so much as the recent willingness of 3 out of 5 white voters to support tax cuts for the super-rich, reduced social services for everyone, and a dramatic rollback of all government…dog whistle racism has helped convince many whites, arguably even a majority, that the greatest danger they face comes from a liberal government in hock to minorities, rather than from concentrated wealth and its plutocratic agenda. “Ian Haney Lopez – Dog Whistle Politics

Early Welfare Programs

“The relationship of African Americans to the welfare state mirrors the racial stratification of American society” Michael Brown, Race, money, and the American welfare state

  • Mothers Pensions in the early 1900s
    • State programs that supported single mothers
    • While African Americans were more impoverished, the aid was given mostly to white women
    • Because benefits were administered locally, rules frequently were created to exclude women of color
      • One common requirement was that a mother maintained a “suitable home” for her children
        • Was not clearly defined and frequently used to exclude African-Americans
  • Aid to Dependent Children (ADC)
    • Part of the New Deal Social Security Act of 1935
      • Majority of New Deal programs and benefits excluded people of color
      • Language from the original Social Security Bill outlawing racial discrimination was removed
        • Giving states silent permission to discriminate
      • Poor black women were often barred or removed under “suitable work” or “employable mother” rules
        • Made it mandatory that poor women accept available employment if suitable care could be found for their children
          • Often enforced on black women without “suitable care” daycare options
          • The same standards were not applied to white mothers – where staying home with children was socially valued.
        • Strict residency requirements discouraged poor southern African American families from migrating north
          • This discriminated against migrant farm workers, many whom were people of color
        • By the 60s many studies showed that:
          • Families of color received less in ADC money than their white counterparts
          • States where more people of color were on the rolls were more restrictive with benefits
  • Old-Age Insurance Provisions Act of 1935
    • Support for widows of retired workers and their children
    • Important step in eliminating old-age poverty
    • Majority of professions which were covered in the act were occupations for whites
      • African Americans dominate jobs (domestic work, seasonal labor, farm labor) were excluded
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The Great Society

  • In 1962 ADC was renamed
    • Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1962
  • President Johnson announced his Great Society program in 1964
    • Included a plethora of legislation acts to fight poverty and racial injustice
      • Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, Higher Education Act, Economic Opportunity Act, raised the federal minimum wage, rent supplements programs, Child Health Improvement and Protection Act, Medicaid Act, Medicare Act, appointed Thurgood Marshall first black American to serve on the Supreme Court, etc.
    • During the 1960s
      • Median black family income rose 53%
      • Black employment in professional, technical, and clerical occupations doubled
      • Average black educational attainment increased by 4 years
      • The proportion of blacks below the poverty line fell from
        • 55% in 1960 to 27% in 1968
      • The black unemployment rate fell 34%
  • White Backlash
    • The term “welfare” had a positive connotation with Americans before the 60s
    • After welfare programs became more diverse due to civil rights efforts
      • Stereotypes about “freeloaders” started to emerge
    • Saw a subtle change from “helping white people “to “black people stealing
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The Block Grant Reversal

  • Nixon’s reversal
    • Nixon’s admin reversed much of LBJ’s Great Society by:
      • Limiting programs
      • Reducing budgets
      • Shifting resources to white middle-class by using block grants
  • Block grants
    • Offers a capped amount of federal money to states
      • Allows govs to spend it with little to no oversight
    • Creates powerful incentive for states to reduce assistance
      • Even as need rise
      • To keep the “savings” in what essentially becomes a slush fund
    • States often make it harder to receive benefits
      • Disproportionately for people of color
  • Culture Poverty Perception
    • False perception that welfare increase black participants
    • Reality is there were just as many black people living in poverty
      • But they weren’t allow to receive assistance till LBJ’s great society
      • Once they weren’t block black people on welfare increased drastically
      • Especially since they were oppressed so much.
      • This gave the impression that civil rights and black people, not white supremacy, caused more welfare.

Reagan’s Dog Whistle

  • Welfare Queen
    • President Reagan created “Welfare Queen” dog whistle
      • Black woman stereotype who lived lavishly/scammed AFDC money
      • On the presidential campaign trail, Reagan shared the story of Chicago’s Linda Taylor, a Black woman charged with welfare fraud. “Her tax-free income is over $150,000,” Reagan liked to say. Actually, Taylor had been charged with defrauding the state of $8000, an exceptional amount for something that rarely happened. But truth did not matter to the Reagan campaign as much as feeding the White backlash to Black Power” Ibram Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning
    • Perpetuated by GOP and media to became a powerful stereotype
      • Contributing to national white hostility toward welfare
        • Which helped end AFDC in the 1990s
  • Rise of Neoliberalism (1980s)
    • Massive cuts to social programs, including AFDC
    • Emphasis on market, not social programs, to solve social problems
    • “Many have associated neoliberalism with exacerbating racism and inequalities by not acknowledging that social stratifications exist.” Neubeck and Cazanave’s Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America’s Poor


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“Reagans’ campaign against welfare helped make the case for tax cuts by successfully using social programs like welfare, and its implicit connection to integration, to convince voters that the real danger in their lives, came from a looming, intrusive government…During the Reagan era, for the first time since the onset of the Great Depression, significant cultural space opened up to present government, rather than concentrated wealth, as the greatest threat to freedom face by the middle class” Ian Haney Lopez

Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Racism

Clinton’s Welfare Reform

  • The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
    • 1996 Clinton passed Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act
      • Reformed cash assistance welfare (AFDC) into a block grant program called TANF
        • Reduced those who receive welfare by instituting work requirements
          • Little consideration for proper child care or employment that earned an adequate wage
          • Many are not able to find work
        • Mandatory time limits
          • Prohibits from receiving assistance for more than 2 consecutive years or five years total over life
        • Promoted “family values” while excluding teenage mothers from benefits
        • Built on the stereotype that immigrants & people of color are
          • Choosing to rely on government aid instead of working
        • Part of the “New Democrat” strategy to “out neo-liberal” the GOP
  • TANF Results
    • Produced deeper poverty for children and badly spent federal funds
      • More than 6 million people now have no income other than food stamps
    • Half of the states help fewer than 20% of families with children living in poverty
    • Before welfare was converted into block grant
      • More than 2/3 of families with children in poverty received welfare benefits
      • By 2015, less than 1/4 did.
  • During George W. Bush’s presidency, eligibility for TANF became more limited
    • However, funding was increased for marriage initiatives

Welfare Today

  • On a state-by-state basis
    • Places with more white people tend to be more generous
      • Oregon’s population is 84% and 1.8% black
        • Gives a single-parent family of three $506 a month
      • Mississippi, which is 60% white and 38% black,
        • Gives a single-parent family of three $170 a month
  • Due to welfare work requirements people in poverty are
    • Required to accept jobs on any terms
    • Are often treated and paid poorly with no recourse
    • Often have no or poor childcare
    • Work requirements often disproportionately effect minorities by:
      • Ignores racial discrimination in job markets and systemic racism in society
      • Provides exemptions for high unemployment places that advantage low population rural white areas
        • over high pop. black urban cities like Detroit and Flint
      • “Policies that exempt high-unemployment places, but not people who face other obstacles to work, selectively acknowledge barriers for only some of the poor. In effect, they suggest that unemployment is a systemic problem in struggling rural communities — but that in poor urban neighborhoods, it’s a matter of individual decisions.” Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz

“Today African Americans are blamed for the failures of the American welfare state. Conservative politicians commonly lament the “grim harvest of the Great Society” and pronounce its policies that cause of inner-city devastation by producing the “breakdown of the family structure”. Black poverty has become the fulcrum of a conservative assault on federal social polices and blacks bear a disproportionate share of any reductions in services of transfers. Michael Brown, Race, money, and the American welfare state

White Resentment for Welfare Today

“When whites feel their status in the racial hierarchy is threatened, they become more resentful of minorities. That, in turn, translates to a greater opposition toward welfare, because some people think welfare disproportionately benefits minorities. This dynamic might be why opposition to welfare programs increased after 2008—when the economy was in tatters and the nation had elected a black president.” Olga Khazan, Atlantic

  • A 2018 UC Berkeley/ Stanford University study
    • Tested whether racial resentment on welfare were related from 2008 to 2012.
    • When white participants were told whites continue to be “largest US ethnic group”
      • They proposed cutting $28 million from federal welfare spending
    • When told that whites’ population share is “declining”
      • Proposed cutting $51 million.
      • More people opposed to welfare and had higher levels of racial resentment
    • Found threats to the status of whites increased support for the Tea Party
  • Many studies testing similar relationships with very similar findings
    • The more white people felt their status was threaten
      • The more racial resentment there was for programs perceived to benefit black people like welfare
      • Regardless if white people were benefitting more from these programs

Farm Bills

  • Based upon the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933
    • Helped farmers through the Dust Bowl and Great Depression
    • Renewed every 5 years
  • Comprehensive legislation that covers everything from:
    • crop insurance
    • training support for beginning farmers
    • funding for sustainable agriculture research
    • healthy food access for low-income families
  • About 80% of the bill’s total spending is SNAP
    • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
    • Making it a target for conservative politicians looking to cut federal spending while scoring political points with base

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“Following are some key events of racism in the history of social welfare. Unless  otherwise cited, this history is drawn from Neubeck and Cazanave’s (2001) Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America’s Poor.

Mothers Pensions in the early 1900s
In the early 1900s state legislatures began to pass bills that supported single mothers called “Mother’s Pensions’. While African Americans were more deeply impoverished, the aid was given almost solely to white women with Anglo ancestry. Because benefits were administered locally, rules frequently were created explicitly to exclude women of color. One common requirement was that a mother maintained a “suitable home” for her children.  The term “suitable”, which was not clearly defined, was frequently used to exclude African-American women due to negative stereotypes of African Americans.

The New Deal and Aid to Dependent Children in the 1930s
In 1935 The New Deal established the Social Security Act, which included the
Aid to Dependent Children program (ADC). Language from the original Social Security Bill that outlawed racial discrimination was totally removed from the bill, giving states silent permission to discriminate. Like the mother s pensions, ADC was administered at the local level, leaving more room for racial discrimination in some states. The federal government did not participate in personnel or administration in the individual states, tacitly allowing discrimination in hiring and African Americans were rarely hired as welfare workers.

The children of poor southern African American women were often barred or removed from ADC rolls under the rationale of “suitable work” or “employable mother”.   The same standards were not applied to white mothers- where staying home with children was socially valued.

In 1935 Congress approved support for widows of retired workers and their children under the Old-Age Insurance Provisions Act. While this was an important step in eliminating old-age poverty, the majority of professions which were covered in the act were occupations for whites, and occupations filled mostly by African Americans (domestic work, seasonal labor, farm labor) were excluded. White widows were offered an alternative to ADC that was preferable since they did not have to demonstrate economic need and were not subject to morality tests, suitable home policies, or compulsory work requirements.  These white widows were considered the “deserving poor”, and they rapidly left ADC creating a two-tiered system.

Post World War II
After World War II individual states and localities tried to control the growth and costs of ADC. This resulted in many more restrictive policies, including more “suitable home” policies, which were used to racially discriminate.  “Man-in-the-house” policies were also implemented, which denied ADC to families whose mothers were suspected of receiving financial assistance from adult males. These households were subject to surprise middle-of-the-night raids by local welfare caseworkers in search of male guests, or any sign that a male had been around. These policies were practiced more commonly on African American households.

Strict residency requirements also served to discourage poor southern African American families from migrating north. This discriminated against migrant farm workers, many whom were African American, whose work required moving from state to state. In the 1950s many states adopted an “employable mother” rule with the intention of discouraging out-of-wedlock births by African American women. This played into the racist stereotype of the African American “breeder” woman.

As more African Americans from the South moved North, many white communities enforced, often through violence or threat of violence, practices that maintained segregated neighborhoods. As the proportion of ADC rolls made up of African Americans grew, many Europe Americans developed “punitive and antagonistic” attitudes toward ADC recipients of color.  During the 60s many studies showed that families of color received less in ADC money than their white counterparts and states where more people of color were on the rolls were more restrictive with benefits. ADC was renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1962 when mothers of the children receiving aid were made eligible to receive assistance.

While new policies, such as the G.I Bill and private health and pension policies helped fuel postwar prosperity for the middle-class, African Americans did not benefit from these programs because of discrimination in labor and housing markets. Practices like “redlining” began with the National Housing Act of 1934, which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) It describes the practice of marking a red line on a map to delineate the area where banks would not invest, primarily areas where people of color lived; later the term was applied to discrimination against a particular group of people (usually by race or sex) no matter the geography. The most devastating form of redlining and the most common use of the term refers to mortgage discrimination in which middle income black and Latino residents are denied loans available to lower income whites (Brown, 1999).

LBJ and “The Great Society” in the 1960s
Launched in 1964, The Great Society was President Johnson’s anti -poverty program. In addition to alleviating poverty, the other stated goal of the Great Society was racially biased social policies inherited from the New Deal (Brown, 1999). While some gains were made by African Americans as a result of the War on Poverty, Nixon’s administration reversed much of the redistributive policies of the Great Society by limiting programs, and shifting resources to middle-class constituencies in the form of block grants.

1960s-1980s and the role of the media.
During this time, the media played a key role in fostering and reinforcing racist stereotypes and negative controlling images African Americans who relied on welfare. The idea of the “Welfare Queen”– an African-American woman who allegedly lived lavishly on AFDC money was a powerful radicalized controlling image perpetuated by President Reagan. This contributed to a national sentiment of primarily white people’s hostility toward welfare, and this was the same hostility that caused the demise of AFDC in the 1990s.

In the 1980s, with the rise of new liberalism, more emphasis was placed on the market to solve problems than on social programs. Many have associated neoliberalism with exacerbating racism and inequalities by not acknowledging that social stratifications exist.

Clinton and G.W Bush
In 1996 AFDC was replaced by the Personal Responsibility and Work
Opportunity Reconciliation Act’s (PRWORA) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program. The focus of PRWORA and TANF are reducing those who receive welfare by instituting work requirements, ending welfare as an entitlement program, mandatory time limits, and the encouragement of two-parent households. Many believe that the philosophy behind PRWORA is a fear that immigrants and people of color relying on government aid instead of working.  “By the 1990s a major goal of welfare reform was the reassertion of racial, gender, and class control over impoverished African- American mothers, and through them, control over their children (Neubeck and Cazenave, p 155) During George W. Bush’s presidency, eligibility for TANF became increasingly limited. However, funding was increased for marriage initiatives (Limbert and Bullock, 2005).

Jacobin: How a Democrat Killed Welfare

Bill Clinton gutted welfare and criminalized the poor, all while funneling more money into the carceral state.

“Bill Clinton’s 1992 election was meant to be a turning point in American politics. Liberals breathed a sigh of relief, believing him to be a much-needed break from the Reagan-Bush era of “small government” and social welfare cuts.But the optimism surrounding Clinton’s election — and favorable assessments of his time in office since — ignore the destruction his administration brought to poor and working people, especially African Americans, and mask not only the continuation but intensification of anti-poor policies. Rather than offering a reprieve from punitive austerity, Clinton took the Reagan-Bush agenda a step further. If his administration was a turning point, it turned us in the wrong direction.In 1994, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in history, which allocated $10 billion for prison construction, expanded the death penalty, and eliminated federal funding for inmate education. The act intensified police surveillance and racial profiling, and locked up millions for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession. It helped usher in the era of mass incarceration that devastated communities of color (for which Clinton himself has recently apologized).Clinton’s simultaneous expansion of federal law enforcement and shrinking of the federal workforce to its lowest level in thirty years reallocated taxpayer dollars from employing people in social service jobs to putting more cops on the streets.The starkest example of the many racist and anti-poor measures directed at African Americans and passed during his administration was the 1996 welfare reform bill, which transformed welfare from an exclusive and unequal cash assistance system that stigmatized its recipients into one that actually criminalized them.The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ended traditional welfare by turning a federal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), into block grants, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF established tougher mandates on poor single mothers and gave states more flexibility in how they spent welfare dollars (opening the door for increased discrimination against minorities).It prohibits anyone from receiving assistance for more than two consecutive years or for more than five years over the course of their life. The act also requires aid recipients to be employed, in most cases, at least thirty hours a week to get their welfare checks, amounting to an hourly wage well below the legal minimum.

Once recipients reach their program time limit, TANF forces them even further into the labor market with little consideration of how they could ensure their children are properly cared for or whether paid employment will earn them an adequate wage. Many more are not even able to find work. A 2012 report by the Urban Institute concluded that for recipients with barriers to employment, TANF did little to help them find jobs.

Sweeping in scope, TANF contains clauses to bolster marriage, mandate job training, and offer parenting classes. The “flexibility” that was a hallmark of the welfare reform bill enabled states to shift welfare funds away from direct cash assistance toward child care programs or subsidies for companies hiring welfare recipients, meaning that a greater portion of public welfare dollars went to the private sector.

States were pressured to reduce welfare rolls — now the singular quantitative measure of success for the program — and used multiple strategies to deter the needy from applying for aid. They implemented complicated and demeaning application procedures and relied on fingerprinting and drug testing to weed out the “criminal element” — even though there was little evidence of widespread criminal activity among recipients.

The net result was that all recipients and applicants were assumed to be potential criminals. Surveillance of low-income women punished black women in disproportionate numbers, resulting in more black children in foster care and black women in prison. Today, welfare and law enforcement work together to closely monitor the parenting of poor mothers.

These punitive policies were not new, but rather an extension of a long, racialized attack on welfare. AFDC was not controversial when it was instituted in the 1930s. Many people subscribed to traditional ideas about gender roles, believing that poor single mothers without a male breadwinner should be supported by the state in order to enable them to stay home and care for their children.

The overwhelming majority of recipients at the time, however, were white women. Women of color were considered less deserving of assistance. State and local social administrators of AFDC, especially in the South, systematically excluded African Americans and Mexican Americans from welfare receipt through “suitable home clauses” and “employable mother laws,” which denied assistance to mothers who didn’t keep “proper” homes or who it was believed could get a job and become self-supporting.

As black migration to the North intensified, more women of color applied for assistance, resulting in opposition to the welfare program. Journalists wrote about welfare fraud and the “problem” of black migration, and there were growing calls to get people off the rolls. In 1967, the Johnson administration instituted a Work Incentive Program (WIN), the first-ever mandatory federal employment rule for AFDC, requiring states to direct a portion of their welfare population to employment programs.

This landmark legislation shifted the role of welfare away from support for single mothers toward one of requiring those mothers to take paid employment outside the home. Although symbolically important because it signaled a new direction in federal policy, WIN was never adequately funded nor effectively enforced. The welfare rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s opposed the mandatory work rules and fought for higher monthly benefits, tempering some of these regressive policies. But only temporarily.

The punitive approach to addressing poverty was a result of the way race and poverty had become intertwined in the national debate. In the 1960s, urban social disorder, black demands for economic equality, and federal anti-poverty initiatives drew the nation’s attention to the persistent problem of black poverty. But the dominant liberal approach explained poverty as a product of black culture, reinforcing the notion that certain poor people were responsible for their own poverty.

Most notoriously articulated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the culture of poverty argument suggested that a dysfunctional family structure — in particular single-parent families — was a primary reason for persistent African-American inequality.

The solution became one of attempting to instill proper values of work and marriage in black men and women. Poor black women were demonized as “welfare queens,” a trope popularized by Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s, which implied that black women chose welfare over work and milked the system for all it was worth. This rhetoric was used to justify sweeping cuts in welfare spending.

Likewise, Clinton’s welfare reform bill was rooted in a culture of poverty argument, evidenced by his racially coded language of dependency and people taking advantage of the system. Stereotypes about women were the foundation of the 1996 welfare reform debate.

Clinton alluded to the fear of black street crime, drug use, crack babies, the breakdown of the family, and the drain on public dollars. His primary goal in dismantling AFDC, as he put it, was to end the “cycle of dependence” and “achieve a national welfare reform bill that will make work and responsibility the law of the land.”

Clinton did not offer a departure from either earlier liberal policies that blamed the poor for their poverty or neoliberal economics. Instead, he turned what had been a few piecemeal reforms into a systematic overhaul of federal policy that led to the criminalization of the welfare poor. He redirected state resources away from financial support for the needy and toward surveillance and criminalization.

In an era of market worship, those who couldn’t demonstrate self-reliance or independence were identified not only as unworthy of assistance, but as a potential threat to the core institutions of American society.

Clinton’s dismantling of welfare, couched in a language of personal responsibility and public policy correction, was the culmination of a trend among both Democrats and Republicans to deter and discourage poor women of color from applying for assistance. In this regard, there was little new about the “New Democrat.””

Newsweek: Racism Has Shaped U.S. Welfare Policy Since 1935

A recent UNICEF report found that the U.S. ranked 34th on the list of 35 developed countries surveyed on the well-being of children. According to the Pew Institute, children under the age of 18 are the most impoverished age population of Americans, and African-American children are almost four times as likely as white children to be in poverty.

These findings are alarming, not least because they come on the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” with his signing into law, on Aug. 22, 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (P.L. 104-193).

It is true that the data show the number of families receiving cash assistance fell from 12.3 million in 1996 to current levels of 4.1 million as reported by The New York Times. But it is also true that child poverty rates for black children remain stubbornly high in the U.S.

My research indicates that this didn’t happen by chance. In a recent book, I examine social welfare policy developments in the U.S. over a 50-year period from the New Deal to the 1996 reforms. Findings reveal that U.S. welfare policies have, from their very inception, been discriminatory.

Blemished by a History of Discrimination
It was the 1935 Social Security Act, introduced by the Franklin Roosevelt administration, that first committed the U.S. to the safety net philosophy.  From the beginning, the policy had two tiers that intended to protect families from loss of income.

On one level were the contributory social insurance programs that provided income support to the surviving dependents of workers in the event of their death or incapacitation and Social Security for retired older Americans.

The second tier was made up of means-tested public assistance programs that included what was originally called the “Aid to Dependent Children” program and was subsequently renamed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the 1962 Public Welfare Amendments to the SSA under the Kennedy administration.

The optimistic vision of the architects of the ADC program was that it would die “a natural death” with the rising quality of life in the country as a whole, resulting in more families becoming eligible for the work-related social insurance programs.

But this scenario was problematic for black Americans because of pervasive racial discrimination in employment in the decades of the 1930s and 1940s. During these decades, blacks typically worked in menial jobs. Not tied to the formal workforce, they were paid in cash and “off the books,” making them ineligible for social insurance programs that called for contributions through payroll taxes from both employers and employees. Nor did blacks fare much better under ADC during these years.

The ADC was an extension of the state-operated mothers’ pension programs, where white widows were the primary beneficiaries. The criteria for eligibility and need were state-determined, so blacks continued to be barred from full participation because the country operated under the “separate but equal” doctrine adopted by the Supreme Court in 1896.Jim Crow Laws and the separate but equal doctrine resulted in the creation of a two-track service delivery system in both law and custom, one for whites and one for blacks that were anything but equal.

Developments in the 1950s and ’60’s further disadvantaged black families. This happened when states stepped up efforts to reduce ADC enrollment and costs. As I examined in my book, residency requirements were proposed so as to bar blacks migrating from the South to qualify for the program. New York City’s “man in the house rule” required welfare workers to make unannounced visits to determine if fathers were living in the home – if evidence of a male presence was found, cases were closed and welfare checks discontinued.

Always an Unpopular Program
Because of the strong American work ethic, and preference for a “hand up” versus a “hand-out,” the means-tested, cash assistance programs for poor families – and especially ADC renamed AFDC – have never been popular among Americans. As FDR himself said in his 1935 State of the Union address to Congress, “the government must and shall quit this business of relief.”

As the quality of life did indeed improve for whites, the number of white widows and their children on the AFDC rolls declined. At the same time, the easing of racial discrimination widened eligibility to more blacks, increasing the number of never-married women of color and their children who were born out of wedlock.

One point, however, to note here is that there has always been a public misconception about race and welfare. It is true that over the years blacks became disproportionately represented. But given that whites constitute a majority of the population, numerically they have always been the largest users of the AFDC program.

Holes in the Safety Net
The retreat from the safety net philosophy can be dated to the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. On the one hand, politicians wanted to reduce the cost of welfare. Under Reagan policies of New Federalism, social welfare expenditures were capped and responsibility for programs for poor families given back to states. On the other hand, the demographic shift in the welfare rolls exacerbated the politics around welfare and racialized the debate.

Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” narrative only reinforced existing white stereotypes about blacks: “There’s a woman in Chicago. She has 80 names, 30 addressees, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexistent deceased husbands. She’s got Medicaid, is getting food stamps and welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.”

The 1990s Gear Change
By the late 1990s efforts of reforms targeting the AFDC program shifted to more nuanced forms of racism with claims that the program encouraged out-of-wedlock births, irresponsible fatherhood and intergenerational dependency.

The political context for the 1996 reforms, then, was fueled by racist undertones that played into public angst about rising taxes and the national debt that were attributed to the high payout of welfare checks to people who were not carrying their own weight.

This emotionally charged environment distorted the poverty debate, and paved the way for a reform bill that many saw as excessively punitive in its harsh treatment of poor families.

Although credited to the Clinton administration, the blueprint for the 1996 welfare reform bill was crafted by a caucus of conservative Republicans led by Newt Gingrich as part of the Contract with America during the 1994 congressional election campaign.

Twice President Clinton vetoed the welfare reform bill sent to him by the GOP-dominated Congress. The third time he signed, creating much controversy, including the resignation of his own adviser on welfare reform, the leading scholar on poverty David Ellwood.

The new bill replaced the AFDC program with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Stricter work requirements required single mothers to find work within two years of receiving benefits. A five-year lifetime limit was imposed for receiving benefits. To reinforce traditional family values, a core principle of the Republican Party, teenage mothers were to be prohibited benefits, and fathers who were delinquent in child support payments were threatened with imprisonment. States were banned from using federally funded TANF for certain groups of immigrants and restrictions were placed on their eligibility to Medicaid, food stamps and Supplementary Social Security Income (SSI).

The Impact

Despite many bleak predictions, favorable outcomes were reported on the 10th anniversary of the bill’s signing. Welfare rolls had declined. Mothers had moved from welfare to work and children had benefited psychologically from having an employed parent.

However, the volume of research generated at the 10-year benchmark has not been matched, in my observation, by that produced in years leading up to the 20-year anniversary.

More research in particular is needed to understand what is happening with families who have left welfare rolls because of passing the five-year lifetime limit for receiving benefits but have not sustained a foothold in an ever-increasing specialized workforce.

Disentangling Intertwined Effects of Racism and Poverty

U.S. welfare policy is, arguably, as much a reflection of its economic policies as it is of the nation’s troublesome history of racism.

In the words of President Obama, racism is a part of America’s DNA and history. Similarly, the notion that anyone who is willing to work hard can be rich is just as much a part of that DNA. Both have played an equal role in constraining adequate policy development for poor families and have been especially harmful to poor black families.

Racism has left an indelible mark on American institutions. In particular, it influences how we understand the causes of poverty and how we develop solutions for ending it.

Indeed, with the continual unraveling of the safety net, the 20th anniversary of welfare reforms can be an impetus for taking a closer look at how racism has shaped welfare policy in the U.S. and to what extent it accounts for the persistently high poverty rates for black children.”

Perspectives on History: Welfare Reform and the Politics of Race

Twenty years ago this month, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). The act transformed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a federal entitlement program for poor single parents and their children, into block grants, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families with the aim of removing people from the welfare rolls. Passed with bipartisan support, the 1996 act reflected a liberal/conservative consensus around the racialized nature of welfare and the need to encourage work rather than dependency. PRWORA resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of families in the United States living in extreme poverty, which economists call “deep poverty.” Its passage signaled the demise of federal antipoverty entitlement programs and the rise of an ethos of individualism and criminalization of the poor. The contemporary discourse of poverty, evident in the current presidential election, reflects the same deep-seated hostility to cash assistance for the poor that undergirded the 1996 reform.

When AFDC was instituted in 1935, it was a relatively uncontroversial program designed to support single mothers without a husband. It reinforced the two-parent heterosexual household and the gender division of labor—one in which women stayed home and took care of the children while men earned a wage. Its logic was rooted in both breadwinner ideology and recognition of the household labor that women performed. This expectation, however, rarely applied to women of color, who were much more likely to be employed, even after having children. And although disproportionately poor and single mothers, they were routinely denied welfare assistance.

State and local administrators of AFDC who were given latitude to determine eligibility criteria systematically excluded African Americans and Mexican Americans from welfare receipt through “suitable home clauses” and “employable mother laws,” which refused assistance to mothers who didn’t keep “proper” homes or who it was believed could get a job and become self-supporting. Some states denied assistance to mothers who had a man living in the home whether or not he provided financial support or was the father of her children.

Beginning in the 1960s, with urbanization, black migration, and looser welfare rules, a growing number of women of color started receiving AFDC. Despite the fact that whites were the single largest racial group on assistance, the media, as well as politicians—such as the notorious Joseph Mitchell in Newburgh, New York—expressed alarm about the changing racial composition of welfare. Tied to this were concerns about fraud, immoral behavior, and undeserving recipients. They explained the disproportionate number of black and Puerto Rican women on welfare as a problem of a culture of poverty—which scholars such as Oscar Lewis described as lack of motivation to work, sexual promiscuity, and a desire for immediate gratification. The culture of poverty discourse laid the foundation for arguments that recipients were the cause of their own poverty and needed to be educated and properly trained to ensure responsibility and economic independence.

In 1967 the Johnson administration instituted a Work Incentive Program (WIN), the first-ever mandatory federal employment rule for AFDC, requiring states to refer a portion of their welfare population to employment programs. This landmark legislation shifted the historic role of welfare away from support for single mothers toward one of expecting and requiring poor single mothers to take paid employment outside the home. The association of race with welfare and culture of poverty explanations were popularized by Ronald Reagan, through his use of the phrase “welfare queen” searing into the public imagination the stereotype of an inner-city African American woman with multiple children who was cheating the system.

Clinton’s welfare reform bill was both an extension of this discourse and marked a turning point. It was similarly rooted in a culture of poverty argument, evidenced by his racially coded language of dependency and people taking advantage of the system. Clinton alluded to the fear of black street crime, drug use, crack babies, the breakdown of the family, and the drain on public dollars. His primary goal in dismantling AFDC, as he put it, was to end the “cycle of dependence” and “achieve a national welfare reform bill that will make work and responsibility the law of the land.” With support from both Democrats and Republicans, the 1996 reform was rolled out with great fanfare and promises of “ending welfare as we know it.” The aim: to reduce the number of people on welfare.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which replaced AFDC, limited lifetime welfare assistance to five years, mandated that recipients work for a minimum of 30 hours a week, and denied assistance to immigrants living in the United States for less than five years. It contained clauses to bolster heterosexual marriage and offer parenting classes. TANF also gave states the flexibility to spend funds on things like child care or job training, rather than direct aid to those in need. States were pressured to get people off welfare—now the singular quantitative measure of success for the program—and used multiple strategies to deter the needy from applying for aid. Administrators implemented complicated and demeaning application procedures and relied on fingerprinting and drug testing to weed out the criminal element—although there was little evidence of any kind of criminal activity among recipients. The net result was that all recipients and applicants were assumed to be potential criminals.

The welfare rolls have fallen since TANF was passed. The decline of welfare assistance, however, did not translate into a decline in poverty. Women, especially women of color, were disproportionately affected by the dismantling of welfare. In 2014, the poverty rate was 14.8 percent, but for families headed by women, it was 39.8 percent and for families headed by black women, 45.6 percent. The concerted effort to remove families from the rolls has meant that many poor parents are unable to support their own children, leading to an enormous expansion in the foster care system. Rates of homelessness are at an all-time high. While not all of this can be attributed to welfare reform, growing economic inequality and the Great Recession have exacerbated the problem of poverty in the United States and the shredded safety net means that the poor have nowhere to turn. In the midst of an election year, many American families are facing an economic crisis, and find it difficult to afford child care, housing, or even food for their families.

The political discourse today reflects a general concern about economic inequality, but it often elides the needs of the most vulnerable. There are important differences between the two major-party presidential candidates—with Hillary Clinton supporting an increase in the federal minimum wage and Donald Trump advocating building walls to keep out immigrants. But there are also similarities. Both Clinton and Trump have lauded the benefits of the 1996 reforms and, in particular, its work requirements. Both have promised to create more jobs, and neither has suggested any kind of cash assistance for the poorest Americans. In fact, programs such as food stamps, housing assistance, and disability insurance are also under attack today. Fingerprinting, drug testing, and work requirements are being implemented for recipients of these programs on the state and local level, or are being championed by policy makers and politicians at the federal level.

Although welfare as an entitlement no longer exists, the politics of welfare seem to have a long shelf life, continuing to shape political discourse. It is evident in the current campaigns that even the mere suggestion of offering financial assistance without exacting some kind of retribution is a political third rail that could doom one’s prospects for electoral success. As Americans struggle to find a solution to their economic misery, they would do well to consider how racism played, and continues to play, a central role in moving us further away from policies designed to shore up and support poor and working Americans.


NY Times: “Which Poor People Shouldn’t Have to Work for Aid?”

“Exhorted by President Trump, federal administrators and many Republican state officials are drafting rules (included in the 2018 GOP farm bill) requiring people to work in exchange for Medicaid, housing aid and food assistance. But what happens when the poor live where work is hard to find?

In Michigan, the state’s Senate has passed a proposal that would exempt Medicaid recipients from a work requirement partly on the basis of geography — if they live in a county where unemployment exceeds 8.5 percent. Geography may seem a simple way to identify who faces barriers to work, but it’s also a crude one. The lines that policymakers draw risk embedding regional and racial biases about who counts as “left behind.”

Michigan’s approach, critics point out, would mean that poor, mostly white rural counties are exempted, but not the predominantly black, economically troubled cities of Detroit and Flint. Those cities happen to be located within counties with low suburban unemployment, which brings the overall unemployment of the counties below 8.5 percent. There are similar demographic patterns in other states pursuing work requirements, including Kentucky, Virginia and Ohio, where the rural areas most likely to qualify for exemptions tend to be disproportionately white.

“This is trying to thread that needle between ‘are you poor because of structural reasons, where you live,’ or ‘are you poor because of your own choices?’” said Heather Hahn, a senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute.

The problem, Ms. Hahn and others say, is that geography captures just one kind of barrier to employment. “If you’re taking only the geography as the structure,” Ms. Hahn said, “it’s really overlooking the much more obvious racial structure.” African-Americans who face racial discrimination in the job market are more likely to have a hard time finding work.

And people who can’t afford cars and live where public transit is inadequate have a harder time. So do the poor with criminal records, or those without a high school diploma, or people with problems securing child care.

Policies that exempt high-unemployment places, but not people who face other obstacles to work, selectively acknowledge barriers for only some of the poor. In effect, they suggest that unemployment is a systemic problem in struggling rural communities — but that in poor urban neighborhoods, it’s a matter of individual decisions.”

“Unlike Lewis and Ryan, Kenneth Clark hand of racism activating the culture of poverty or what you called “pathology.” In Clark’s work, the dueling consciousness of the oppression-inferiority thesis resurfaced. First slavery, then segregation and now poverty and life in the “ghetto” made black people inferior, according to this latest update of thesis. Poverty became perhaps the most enduring and popular in fit into the oppression-inferiority thesis.

Something was making poor people poor, according to idea. And it was welfare. Welfare “transforms the individual from a dignified, industrious, self-reliant spiritual being into a dependent animal creature without his knowing it,” U.S. senator Barry Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of the Conservative in 1960. Goldwater and his ideological descendants said little to nothing about rich White people who depended on the welfare of inheritances, tax cuts, government contracts, hookups, and bailouts. They said little to nothing about the White middle class depending on the welfare of the New Deal, the Gl bill, subsidized suburbs, and exclusive White networks. Welfare 10 middle- and upper-income people remained out of the discourse on “handouts, as welfare for the Black poor became the true oppressor in the conservative version of the oppression-inferiority thesis. “The evidence of this failure is all around us,” wrote Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James in 2018.”   Ibram Kendi, How to be an Anti-racist

Slate: Republicans’ Fixation on Work Requirements Is Fueled by White Racial Resentment

“Thursday afternoon, the House narrowly passed a Farm Bill that, if it were to become law, would vastly expand work requirements for SNAP (formerly “food stamps”) recipients, putting more than 2 million people at greater risk of hunger. The vote is the latest in a coordinated GOP effort to ration everything from health care to housing according to work status. The vote came on the heels of a sweeping proposal from the Trump administration to reform several federal agencies, including rebranding the Department of Health and Human Services as the Department of Health and Public Welfare—presumably to make its association with the now-pejorative welfare even more obvious to the public—with an explicit emphasis on standardizing work requirements across public assistance programs.

This “illusory emphasis on employment” was part of a multifaceted condemnation of the Trump administration’s approach to poverty in a report presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council early Friday. Hours before the House vote, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., rebuked the report as “misleading,” arguing that “being able to provide for one’s self and family is empowering, both economically and spiritually.”

Haley’s comments fit right into the Trump administration’s crusade to sell work requirements as measures that promote the “dignity of work“ and incentivize “community engagement.” In truth, work requirements devalue work and demean the people doing it. People in poverty are required to accept jobs on any terms, while the labor they already perform within their homes and communities is disregarded entirely. This narrow framing of work and productivity has deep historical roots, and stems from a long tradition of exploitation that, then as now, disproportionately affects women of color.

Absent any evidence that they’re necessary or effective, work requirements gain traction because they play into the public perception that people in poverty—especially black women in poverty—are lazy, irresponsible welfare queens. At a political moment when policymakers are deliberately broadening the scope of what’s considered “welfare,” it’s clear that consequences of the American pastime of embedding—and accepting—racism in public policy will ultimately envelop anyone below a certain net worth. In states where Trump’s agenda is already in practice, we can glimpse what’s in store for millions more Americans if this vision is fully realized.

In many ways, Mississippi provides this playbook. Last April we interviewed women in Jackson about their experiences accessing supports like SNAP and TANF (cash assistance, or “welfare”). One woman, Carla (a pseudonym, which is standard in such policy research), has held numerous paying jobs in her adult life and now also cares for her two young children as well as a brother, who has a disability, and her elderly mother.

She also shows up for other families in her community. When the city stopped providing a school bus to her housing complex, Carla began driving the neighborhood kids to school herself, improvising a bus using her 18-passenger van. Noting the curvy road with no sidewalks, she explained, “I didn’t want to see them walking. It’s too much.” These forms of productivity, however, are invisible within the “work requirements” rubric. And so, attending to the needs of the community becomes a casualty of meeting the requirements of the state. As Carla says, “You get on this program and then now you’re neglecting everything else trying to deal with the stipulations of this program.”

Within the scope of work that counts to the state, dignity is not part of the picture. As Carla said, “When you come in, [employers] already know you work for TANF,” and, she says, they treat her badly as a result. But with no power to negotiate for better conditions or hold out for better options, “You’re backed up against the wall; you can’t afford to lose this job.”

In one placement through her welfare office, Carla was fired after declining to clean the bathroom at the end of her shift—a duty that was not included in the job description as a teacher’s assistant. She said that she thought her employer was trying to find out, in her words, “Just, ‘How much will she take before she acts like how I think she should act?’ ” She lost both TANF and SNAP when she was unable to find a new job within 10 days.

Work requirements coerce women like Carla into no- or low-wage work where they risk exploitation to qualify for fewer than $6 a day in TANF benefits for a family of three. While “work activities” that satisfy this requirement in Mississippi do include jobs that are paid an hourly wage, they also encompass community service, work experience programs, and the provision of child care for another TANF recipient engaged in community service, for which that $6 a day is the only compensation. And the odds of receiving benefits at all are bleak: In 2016, Mississippi approved just 1.4 percent of applicants to the program, despite having among the toughest job markets and the highest child poverty rate in the country.

Fighting the latest proposals at the national level requires dismantling their ideological foundations. Ultimately, the proliferation of work requirements advanced by the current administration spring from a tree with very deep, racist roots.

To start, the predecessor to “welfare as we know it” was the mother’s pension, which, as long as it primarily served white women, wasn’t thought of as welfare at all. It was designed to enable widowed mothers to meet their basic needs without wage work, precisely because Americans believed mothers should be able to dedicate their time solely to the unpaid work of child care and housekeeping. Once more black women began accessing assistance, however, work requirements followed. With the Great Migration, Northern states increasingly imposed work requirements that were already commonplace in the South (and had followed more informal practices of restricting black women’s access to welfare to compel work during harvesting season).

With clear echoes of rhetoric from today, the 1967 amendments to the Social Security Act, which first established national work requirements for cash assistance, proclaimed that mandatory work would impart “a sense of dignity, self-worth, and confidence which will flow from being recognized as a wage-earning member of society.” Yet in her testimony to Congress about the reform, welfare activist Beulah Sanders foreshadowed Carla’s experience, evoking the long history of black women performing domestic work for their wealthier white counterparts: “One of the things we are concerned about is being forced into these nonexisting positions which might be going out and cleaning Mrs. A’s kitchen.”

Coupled with the overvaluing of any job outside the home, a central tactic in the institutionalization of work requirements was the devaluing of family caregiving, the very thing that led to the early mother’s pension when white women were the beneficiaries. Nixon, in a speech to the Republican Governors Association in 1971, decried a system in which “one person can be penalized for doing an honest day’s work and another can be rewarded for doing nothing at all,” completely erasing the labor recipients were doing within their home. Twenty-five years later, welfare reform established that women could meet the new TANF work requirements by caring for another welfare recipient’s child, but not their own; as Deborah Stone writes, “work for work’s sake became the new mantra.”

Critically, although work requirements and other welfare policies have been designed as tools of racial exclusion, they hurt white people too. As Michelle Alexander argues regarding the criminal justice system in The New Jim Crow, not only are the disadvantages to members of other races endemic of a racialized system, they are necessary to preserve its legitimacy as a “race-neutral” system. So, white Americans become “collateral damage” of racist policy.

The unemployment rate of a specific county, for example, is ostensibly a “race-neutral” indicator of how hard it is to find work. As such, the Michigan lawmaker who proposed exempting predominantly white, rural counties from Medicaid work requirements, while still imposing them on the counties that are home to predominantly black cities like Detroit and Flint, could argue with plausible deniability that charges of racism were “ridiculous.”

Contrary to popular belief, white Americans have always been the primary recipients of public benefits, and comprise by far the largest group of Medicaid beneficiaries. And the inaccessibility of benefits and the exploitation inherent in the “workfare” model lowers the floor for everyone, while incentivizing employers to “set wages at extremely low levels with the knowledge that welfare recipients must accept any job that comes along or risk losing their benefits.”

But due to the decadeslong political project of stigmatizing any form of means-tested assistance (as opposed to more universally available programs like Social Security)—which has relied heavily on the cultivation of racial resentment and derisive characterizations of “the poor”—even those who clearly recognize the inadequacy of the safety net and private market commonly call for further retrenchment rather than expansion. For example, as Julilly Kohler-Hausmann documents in her 2017 book Getting Tough, Californians writing letters to Gov. Ronald Reagan in the 1970s commonly bemoaned their lack of health care, sick leave, or adequate pay—but rather than demanding their own access to these basic benefits, constituents argued that “welfare” should be slashed.

In a study published earlier this month, researchers found that white racial resentment predicted opposition to welfare spending, echoing the findings of a widely cited 2001 paper correlating race and support for welfare. In other words, the racism that has imbued anti-poverty policy for decades has further undermined the type of solidarity across poor and working-class people that could bolster demands for both higher wages and a more robust social safety net.

Our government’s ongoing role in stoking racial resentment and mainstreaming the idea that paid work alone is what makes us worthy of rights should be deeply troubling to us all. Carla’s words indicate she heard the message loud and clear: “The world has already labeled any type of assistance that you get from the government as bad. You are less than a human … You do not matter.”

Powerful new research suggests that these othering experiences aren’t just a threat to our sense of social belonging and economic well-being but to democracy itself. As Jamila Michener, author of Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism, and Unequal Politics shared with us, “Punitive policies like work requirements … tell beneficiaries that they have little power, are not trusted, will not be heard, and cannot count on the government for help in times of need. Having learned such lessons, beneficiaries lose faith in government, forgo opportunities to vote, and disengage from politics more broadly.” Considering more than half of Americans will at some point in their lives fall below the poverty line, the scope of this underrecognized form of disenfranchisement could be vast.

Charting a path forward that affirms that dignity is a condition of our humanity, not our work status, will require codifying this value into our laws and policies. We don’t have to start from scratch.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial coalition of farmworkers, tenants, welfare activists, union leaders, and others demanding that Congress take concerted action on poverty, including through an “Economic Bill of Rights.” A key partner in the campaign was the National Welfare Rights Organization, a coalition of thousands of welfare recipients across the country, led by black women, which demanded “decent income as a right“ and emphasized the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on low-income women. Fifty years later, a revived Poor People’s Campaign is preparing to once again march on D.C. to fight for economic justice and racial equality; meanwhile, the city of Stockton, California, is piloting the first municipal-led basic income, which, importantly, will center community engagement in its design and evaluation—a policy feature likely to strengthen political engagement rather than erode it.

Certainly these ideas are ambitious, but our solutions have to meet the scale of the problem. And in the near term, rejecting the campaign to expand work requirements is a down payment on a future U.S. society that no longer treats the price of our paid labor as a proxy for our value.”

Saloon: Salon Why are food stamps under attack?

The Atlantic: Racial Resentment Can Motivate Opposition to Welfare

In a series of experiments, researchers show that when whites feel threatened, they oppose government assistance.

“It’s a pretty well-known trope at this point: People who rely on government assistance programs are often the ones who oppose welfare most vociferously. Aside from the infamous “keep your government hands off my Medicare” line, examples abound of poor people who hate government assistance for poor people.

A new study explores a surprising psychological motivation that might be underpinning this opposition to welfare, at least among white people: racial resentment.Here’s how it works, according to a paper published in the journal Social Forces: When whites feel their status in the racial hierarchy is threatened, they become more resentful of minorities. That, in turn, translates to a greater opposition toward welfare, because some people think welfare disproportionately benefits minorities. This dynamic, the authors find, might be why opposition to welfare programs increased after 2008—when the economy was in tatters and the nation had elected a black president.For the study, the authors—Rachel Wetts of UC Berkeley and Robb Willer of Stanford University—first analyzed survey data and found that “whites’ racial resentment rose beginning in 2008 and continued rising in 2012.” They note that though whites still had higher incomes, wealth, and representation in government than African Americans and Latinos during that time, “much public discourse about race in this period emphasized America’s increasing demographic diversity and the declining dominance of white Americans.” Some American whites, it seems, felt threatened by this.
Starting in 2008, the study authors found, minorities showed more positive attitudes toward welfare, while whites’ attitudes held steady—even though recessions tend to increase support for government programs. That racial gap in support for welfare among the races persisted in 2012, even though all Americans began to oppose welfare in greater numbers at that time.Willer and Wetts later did a series of experiments meant to test whether these two trends were related. First, they found that when white participants were told that whites continue to be the “largest single ethnic group in the United States,” they proposed cutting $28 million from federal welfare spending. Those told that whites’ population share is “substantially declining” proposed cutting $51 million. The white participants who were told their population share was declining were also more opposed to welfare and had higher levels of racial resentment—and the latter phenomenon helped explain the former, according to the authorsThen, they found whites were less likely to support programs that benefited minorities if they had been told that the gap between white and minority incomes is closing. What’s more, white participants who opposed a welfare program benefiting minorities went on to support a program benefiting whites.There are a few caveats to keep in mind here. Not all the researchers’ tests yielded significant links between threats, welfare opposition, and racial resentment, so they would have to be repeated in order to prove the trends hold up more broadly. And priming, an experimental method that reminds people of something (say, whites’ share of the population) before testing their attitudes, has been criticized as not very reliable.The priming-style measures used in this study could be important, though, because what Americans see in the news influences their support for different types of candidates and policies. “Because public attitudes partially drive developments in anti-poverty policy, these findings suggest that perceptions of rising minority power, declines in whites’ relative socioeconomic status, or other perceived macro-level threats to whites’ racial status may provoke adoption of more restrictive welfare regimes,” the authors write.And status threat, in general, is a very powerful motivator. Earlier, Willer, the author of this study, found that threats to the status of whites increased support for the Tea Party. Studies of white supremacists have found they feel whites are discriminated against. A study a few months ago found that feeling America’s status is threatened motivated support for President Trump.Taken together, the racially driven opposition to welfare could be one reason why Trump has tried to cut various government programs. “The Trump administration has begun allowing states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, and has proposed tripling the rents for the poorest households receiving federal housing assistance,” The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey points out. “The House is also scheduled to vote again next month on a plan to cut $9 billion from food-stamp benefits over 10 years and require most adults to hold a job to receive payments.”
The takeaway from this study is a depressing one: “This further implies that evidence of increased racial equality could exacerbate overall economic inequality,” the authors note. “As whites attempt to undermine racial progress they see as threatening their group’s status, they increase opposition to programs intended to benefit poorer members of all racial groups.”A rising tide could lift all boats, in other words. But some people will still want their boats to be just a little higher than the others.” 

Milibank Quarterly: Welfare Reform and Substance Abuse

Since the 1970s, federal policymakers have enacted major tax reforms and major social policy initiatives ranging from the establishment of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Medicare prescription drug coverage. The most radical and controversial social policy initiative was the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) (; ; ; ; ).

By changing the basic pattern of social obligations between public aid recipients and other citizens, PRWORA ended a 60-year-old federal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). In place of AFDC, PRWORA established the avowedly transitional program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Survey data indicate that welfare reform has become one of the most popular social policy innovations of the last 30 years ().

PRWORA converted the financing of public aid from an entitlement to a system of block grants that shifts many financial incentives and risks from the federal government to the 50 states and, in many cases, ultimately to the recipients themselves. TANF block grants accord states broad discretion to determine who is eligible for TANF and for how long.

States are given broad discretion to sanction recipients who do not comply with program rules (). As long as the states comply with due process requirements, they are free to impose a wide range of penalties, ranging from small and temporary benefit reductions to the removal of recipient families from the TANF rolls. Such sanctions are widely applied. A study by the General Accounting Office found that the benefits of an average of 113,000 families per month (4.5% of TANF recipients) were reduced because of sanctions. Equally significant, in 1999 seven states reported that sanctions accounted for at least 20 percent of their case closures (; ).

At least 80 percent of TANF recipients face a five-year lifetime limit on the receipt of federally funded cash aid. PRWORA and related legislation restricted the ability of documented and undocumented immigrants to receive public aid. Concomitant legislation restricted the ability of children with behavioral disorders and adults with substance use disorders to receive federal disability benefits.

The number of families receiving public cash aid sharply declined in the years following welfare reform. Between August 1996 and March 2003, the number of TANF recipients fell by 59 percent, from 12.2 million to 4.96 million people (, ). By 2003, welfare caseloads were at their lowest levels since 1969. The participation of unmarried mothers in the labor force reached record levels, a pattern that reflected the changing opportunities and incentives facing low-income parents balancing home obligations and paid work (). Researchers continue to debate the relative impact of welfare reform, the booming 1990s economy, and other public policy changes on the reduction in the number of welfare recipients ().

When PRWORA was passed, the prevalence of substance use, abuse, and dependence among welfare recipients was largely unknown. Many advocates, administrators, and researchers believed that substance use disorders among public aid recipients were widespread and severe, and some feared that such disorders would prevent many recipients from complying with the TANF requirements.

The likely impact of PRWORA provisions on low-income mothers who use or misuse alcohol, licit, or illicit drugs was also unknown. Although work requirements, sanctions, and lifetime time limits were not specifically related to substance use disorders, many participants in the welfare reform debate believed that substance-using, -abusing, or -dependent recipients would be disproportionately affected.

PEW: Family Welfare Caps Lose Favor in More States

Since the 1990s, nearly half the states have denied additional cash assistance to low-income mothers who have more children while receiving welfare.

But in recent years, so-called family cap laws have fallen out of favor. Last week, Massachusetts became the latest state to repeal its family cap, when state lawmakers overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

Massachusetts joins New Jersey, which effectively repealed its cap last year as part of its budget — after two previous attempts were vetoed by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California repealed its maximum family grant rule in 2016.

Six other states — Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Wyoming — have repealed their family caps since 2002, according to data compiled for Stateline by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that tracks the laws.

Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia still have family caps in place, according to the Urban Institute.

Critics of the caps point to research showing they fail to dissuade welfare recipients from having additional children. Instead, researchers say, they can harm children’s health and development and deepen poverty.

According to the Children’s HealthWatch, a nonpartisan team of researchers and pediatricians at Boston Medical Center, families of infants, toddlers and preschoolers who were subject to Massachusetts’ family cap reported more household and child food insecurity and poorer health among children.

The Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law came to a similar conclusion in a 2016 study. It found that family caps didn’t decrease the number of children born on public assistance and pushed families further into poverty.

In Massachusetts, the repeal means that a family will receive an extra $100 per additional child each month, according to the Department of Transitional Assistance. The law, which took effect immediately and is retroactive to Jan. 1, will affect 8,500 children, according to the agency.

The monthly payment for a family of three in Massachusetts in 2018 was $593, while a family of four received $691. The repeal will cost the state an additional $13 million a year.

“While $100 a month isn’t going to lift someone out of poverty, it’s a real concrete difference in being able to meet a family’s needs,” said Naomi Meyer, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services.

Meyer said the cap forced many Massachusetts families to scrimp on basics. She says parents have told her they delayed changing their babies’ diapers to save money, did their laundry in the bathtub and walked for miles to the grocery store because they couldn’t afford bus fare.

“These are really heartbreaking, devastating stories,” Meyer said.

But critics argue that repealing the caps will cost states more, discourage self-sufficiency and reward families for having more children.

“There are families in Massachusetts who don’t qualify for public assistance who decided not to have more children even though they may want them, because they won’t be able to afford them,” said Paul Craney, spokesman for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for fiscal responsibility.

“Why should those who receive public assistance not have to make the same hard decisions?”

State Rep. Colleen Garry, a Democrat, was the lone vote against repeal in the Massachusetts House. “We need to remember the middle-class people we represent,” she told the Lowell Sun. “At some point, enough is enough.

“I personally have friends who would have loved to have more children, but they knew they could not afford the cost of raising additional children. There needs to be responsibility and accountability amongst individuals in the commonwealth.”

When he vetoed the New Jersey family cap repeal, Christie said the caps provide for equal treatment of welfare recipients and other residents, “who do not automatically receive higher incomes following the birth of a child.”

New Jersey lawmakers last year effectively repealed the cap as part of the 2019 state budget, and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed doing the same in next year’s plan.

The state Senate last year approved legislation that would make the repeal permanent, but it is currently in committee at the Democratic state Assembly.

The family cap laws came out of the push to overhaul state and federal welfare rules in the 1990s. The idea was to discourage out-of-wedlock births and encourage self-sufficiency. New Jersey was the first to implement family cap rules in 1992, followed by Arkansas, California and Massachusetts in 1994.

As part of the federal welfare overhaul in 1996, Congress replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The new law capped the amount of time a family could be on public assistance and instituted work requirements. The federal law allows states to opt out of the family cap.

In the intervening decades, most states, even those without caps, have declined to increase welfare benefits. Inflation has eroded the value of cash assistance, forcing 99% of TANF recipients to make do with less, according to a January report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.

But Ife Floyd, a senior policy analyst at the group, said more states are becoming aware of the connection between family cap rules and poverty. (New Jersey took things a step further and increased welfare cash assistance by 10% in December.)

Floyd also believes that some state leaders want to distance themselves from racial stereotypes that swirled around the implementation of the caps. Critics have long argued the family caps are rooted in racist tropes about “welfare queens” deliberately having more children to collect more cash assistance.

“We’re in a different era,” Floyd said.

What Happens When States Go Hunting for Welfare Fraud

The caps can be complex and vary greatly from state to state, according to the Urban Institute. In some states, families are exempt if they can prove a child was conceived because of rape or incest. Other states penalize mothers who have additional children soon after they begin receiving benefits.

California’s cap, which included the rape and incest exception, was a violation of families’ privacy because it forced women to prove they had conceived because of rape or incest or because their birth control had failed, said Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law & Poverty, a California-based research group that advocated for repeal.

“You’re going in to ask for help with rent because your employer didn’t give you enough hours,” Bartholow said, “and they’re asking you how your child was conceived.”

Ron Haskins worked on the 1996 federal welfare overhaul as a Republican aide to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. Now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Haskins said there was bipartisan support for a family cap in the 1990s, when out-of-wedlock births were skyrocketing among all Americans.

“You could say that all those policies could have a racial motivation, but it wasn’t a huge part of the debate,” Haskins recalled. “Why should taxpayers pay individuals to have babies outside marriage when they’re on welfare already? And most Americans would support that reasoning.”

But Haskins said that if he were working on the legislation today, he’d be “hesitant” to support the family cap.

“It’s pretty tough and creates hardships for families,” he said. “And poverty isn’t good for kids.”

Vox: Why so many people who need the government hate it

Everyone benefits from welfare. Here’s why most people don’t know that.

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

President Ronald Reagan uttered those words in his 1981 inaugural address to the country. He was referring specifically to the government’s role in helping bring the US out of an economic crisis. But since then, it’s become a kind of blanket truism in Republican circles. The government is a perennial boogeyman, and the main policy objective on the right has been to reduce the role of government in public life.

But there’s a problem: Many who accept this dogma are the very people who need the government the most. Research shows, for instance, that Republican states are disproportionately dependent on federal aid. Yet many Republican voters appear blissfully unaware of this contradiction.

In her new book The Government-Citizen Disconnect, Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler investigates this paradox. She looks at historical government data as well as surveys of Americans’ experiences with 21 federal social policies, including food stamps, Social Security, Medicaid, and the home mortgage interest deduction.

And what she found was fascinating: It turns out that people’s attitudes toward welfare are a strong predictor of how they’ll vote. But even more interesting, the types of federal benefits people get — and whether they’re “visible” like food stamps and Medicaid or “invisible” like tax breaks — influence how they perceive their own personal dependency on social welfare programs.

I called Mettler to talk to her about her findings and why she thinks the government-citizen connect is a genuine threat to American democracy. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Your book focuses on a contradiction at the center of our politics: the disconnect between citizens and the government they rely on. How did this paradox evolve? How did people become so alienated from their government?

Suzanne Mettler

We’re in this weird situation in which people have to come to rely on government more and more, and at the same time government has required less and less of people. Now, you’d expect this to mean that people’s attitudes toward government have become favorable, but the opposite is true. And this is the paradox I’m grappling with in the book.

It turns out that how much a person actually benefits from government services matters very little in terms of shaping their attitude toward government. And that’s true even when controlling for all sorts of other factors.

Sean Illing

But there was one factor in particular that did make a big difference in terms of predicting someone’s view of government, right?

Suzanne Mettler

Right, and that was people’s attitudes about welfare. About 44 percent of Americans have unfavorable views of welfare. And the people who have very unfavorable views about welfare have strong attitudes about government that are shaped by this view. They believe that welfare is unfair, or that undeserving people are receiving it, and that deserving people like themselves are not getting anything.

There’s a lot of resentment out there from people who have this deeply negative perception of welfare, and this perception determines their view of government more than anything else. They’re blind to their own relationship to government, and so they assume welfare is something “other” people get.

Sean Illing

I have to address the giant elephant in the room. When we’re talking about welfare and people’s perceptions of it, we’re talking about race. And what you often find is that people don’t necessarily object to welfare; they object to welfare going to the out-group, to the “others.” Is this consistent with your findings?

Suzanne Mettler

Yes. Race is significant, and many other scholars have discovered this as well. Across the board, whites had more unfavorable views of welfare than people of color, in large part because they considered welfare something that people of color primarily benefit from.

I also found that income matters a lot, too. Every group throughout the middle class had very unfavorable views toward welfare. Even African Americans, if they were middle-class, were more resentful of welfare than African Americans who were low-income or high-income.

So we’ve got these parallel patterns going on at once. There’s the racial bias, as you mentioned, and then there are the views of middle-income people. The past several decades have been particularly rough for the middle class. Productivity is very high, people are working more hours than ever, and incomes are stagnant. Many of these people feel like they’re trapped between the poor, who receive lots of benefits, and the rich, who don’t need any help.

Sean Illing

Can you give me a sense of how public attitudes toward the government have evolved over the last three or four decades? And how does this break down on the left and the right?

Suzanne Mettler

If you go back to the middle of the 20th century, there are all kinds of survey questions that have been asked in the same way over time, like from the 1940s or so onward. It used to be that majorities of Americans, like over 60 or 70 percent in the 1950s and 1960s, had very positive responses to questions about trust in government.

But then it begins to deteriorate with the Vietnam War and Watergate and you see a downward slide. There was a slight uptick during the 1980s and a little bit of up and down movement in the 1990s. After 9/11, the country briefly comes together, but basically it’s a downward trendline on all of these indicators.

Today, about one in five Americans holds a positive view toward government. About one in five believes that public officials are responsive to people like them, and this more or less holds across party lines. I think there are different reasons why people on either end of the political spectrum don’t like government, but there’s a lot of antipathy to government across the board.

Sean Illing

In the book, you cite Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” comment from 2013, in which he claimed that 47 percent of the population are dependent upon the government and will vote for the Democratic candidate no matter what. But data shows that it’s the so-called “red states” that contribute the least to the federal coffers and rely the most on federal services — and of course, nearly all of those states voted for Romney. What the hell is going on here?

Suzanne Mettler

Yeah, this is quite frustrating. I spent a lot of time looking at the state of Kentucky to try to make sense of this. Kentucky is a very poor state. And when you look at congressional districts there, you find a bunch of them where the average person gets more than 30 or 40 or 50 percent of their income from federal social benefits.

Yet those same districts are electing very conservative members of Congress who promise to introduce work requirements for food stamps and repeal the Affordable Care Act and so forth. It’s really puzzling.

I think there are a couple of things that might explain this. One is that I found that people who benefit from more visible social programs, like food stamps, are much less likely to vote.

This is not a big surprise. We’ve know for some time that people who are higher-income and have more socioeconomic status tend to vote more. They tend to be mobilized more by groups and public officials and they participate more, and they tend to be less cognizant of the ways in which they benefit from social services.

Sean Illing

We should explain this participation gap a little more. So we know that people who are aware and appreciative of government’s role in their lives through social benefits are least likely to participate in politics, and those who use social benefits but show no cognizance of government’s role in providing them are much more likely to vote. What accounts for this?

Suzanne Mettler

The people who participate the most in politics, usually people with more education and more resources, rely on plenty of social benefits from government, but these benefits are often hidden in the tax code or are disguised in other ways. So they don’t think of government as having done much for them personally.

But the people who are most aware that government has helped them tend to be people who’ve used more visible policies like food stamps or subsidized housing or Medicaid. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward.

People with more resources have more time and are part of social networks that encourage them to participate, and they’re asked to participate by public officials and organizations. We just don’t see these sorts of incentives for low-income people.

Sean Illing

A big part of this story is the relentless efforts of organizations and political activists like the Koch brothers, who spend a lot of money convincing people that government is their enemy. The people they’re targeting have almost nothing in common with the special interests manipulating them, but the propaganda is effective.

Suzanne Mettler

As a political scientist, I would have thought that people’s personal experiences might interfere with that. If the government helped you afford college or health care or prevented your grandmother from falling into poverty when she was a citizen, you would think that would overcome the messages people are getting from the special interests.

But I’ve found that those personal experiences don’t matter much, unless somebody is connecting the dots, unless someone is pointing out these connections.

Sean Illing

Well, that’s precisely my point: There are countless forces, many of which operate behind the scenes, that are invested in obscuring these connections, in making sure that people don’t connect the dots.

Suzanne Mettler

You’re absolutely right about that. There is a lot of obscuring, and there’s also a lot of distraction. People are encouraged to focus on all kinds of side issues or culture war issues or anything that draws their attention away from these fundamental connections.

Sean Illing

I often feel like we’re locked in a brutal self-fulfilling cycle here. What we’ve seen time and again in states like, say, Louisiana and Kansas, is that Republican administrations have deliberately undermined social policies like Obamacare and then pointed to the subsequent dysfunction as proof of the government’s inherent badness.

Suzanne Mettler

Right, and there’s another story there to be told, and that is that the government has actually helped people out in lots of ways and is doing so every day through all of these social benefits. But this story is not told, and so we end up in this place with many Americans are philosophical conservatives but utilitarian liberals.

Sean Illing

Can you explain what you mean by that?

Suzanne Mettler

When people are asked broad questions about how big government should be, or if they approve of larger taxes, they reflexively sound pretty conservative. But when they’re asked more concrete questions about funding for Social Security or unemployment insurance, they sound pretty liberal.

So when you really drill down, you find that people like these benefits, but when the game of politics is played in a way that draws people’s attention to abstractions, conservatives win. And when liberals can manage to draw attention to specifics, they win.

Sean Illing

Do you think this is mostly about information? If we could take all these people who are confused about what government actually does to and for them and sit them down in front of a screen and educate them about the reality, do you believe that would change anything?

Suzanne Mettler

I think information can help, but I think we shouldn’t exaggerate how much it helps. New information only helps those who are actually open to it, and the truth is that many people aren’t. We’re in this very partisan environment where it matters to people who is conveying a message, and there isn’t a lot of trust.

I’ve come to the conclusion that relationships are more important. And I think organizations need to be making these things much more clear to people in their everyday lives. I also think that, as a citizenry, we need to rethink how we talk about our lives and the role that government has had in it.

Sean Illing

I see the government-citizen disconnect as an existential threat to our liberal democracy, because it’s destroying the very basis of citizenship and making it near impossible to respond to rising income inequality. Is that how you see it?

Suzanne Mettler

I agree that this government-citizen disconnect makes it really difficult for government to do anything constructive about economic inequality, but it’s not just that. It actually undermines government’s capacity to do much of anything.

Government is what we have in common, our shared capacity to do something to overcome what political scientists call “collective action problems” — that is, inherent disincentives to work together for the common good. These are problems that cannot be solved by your church, your family, businesses, or other organizations. They require government action.

In the United States, we have this history and this aspiration for government to be democratic. It’s about all of us and what we can do together. So if we become more and more anti-government, we’re against ourselves. We’re against our own collective capacity to do anything.

So it really doesn’t matter what it is. It could be economic inequality, it could be climate change, it could be restoring the infrastructure. We can’t solve any of these problems without government. And if individual citizens withdraw from public life, the only people in society who have power are those with lots of economic power. That’s why I find this profoundly troubling.

Sean Illing

So where does that leave us? How do we bridge the gap between citizens and government?

Suzanne Mettler

We have to change the narrative. We have to think about the role that government has had in our own lives. We have to talk to friends and family members about what role government has played in their lives, and help them see the connections.

I have my students do interviews with a family member, preferably the eldest member of their family who has grown up in the United States, and ask them about government’s role in their life through public policies. They come back having learned all sorts of things they didn’t know about how a public policy like the GI Bill enabled that person to be the first in their family to go to college, and how that changed the fate of the family forever.

So we have to find a way to recapture that sense of the government as an instrument of good in our lives, and we have to stop thinking of it as the enemy. Otherwise, we cannot make reforms and move forward as a democracy.


Further Readings

Racial History of Unions and Right to Work Policies

Image result for Photo of Labor Strike at Bowman Dairy 1918

Photo of Labor Strike at Bowman Dairy 1918

Civil Rights in Unions

  • Unions have supported and opposed civil rights
    • When FDR signed National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which guaranteed right of union
      • Less than 1% of black workers were in unions
      • Also known as the National Labor Relations act, this legislation gave labor unions the power of collective bargaining, defined unfair work practices, and established consequences if those rules were broken. As unions excluded non-white workers from better paying jobs and benefits like health care, pension, and job security, millions of white workers were able to work their way into the middle class.
    • Most unions in the beginning excluded people of color
      • Fear that Black workers would take whites’ jobs
      • Employers capitalized on racial divisions by recruiting Black workers as strikebreakers
        • Led to many violent riots against people of color
      • Some unions allowed people of color
        • Often after people of color fought them
        • Or out of necessity like labor shortages during wars
      • 1902, W.E.B. Du Bois, found 43 national unions had no Black members, and 27 others barred Black apprentices, keeping membership to a minimum
        • Du Bois spoke against both “the practice among employers of importing ignorant Negro-American laborers in emergencies” and “the practice of labor unions of proscribing and boycotting and oppressing thousands of their fellow toilers.”
  • By 1960s, Blacks and other minorities accounted for 25% of union membership
      • Discrimination was outlawed but many unions continued to keep Blacks out
      • Many trade unions still didn’t allow African Americans to become apprentices
  • Once accepted
    • Unions helped people of color win civil rights advances and protect their jobs
      • Unions help reduce wage gap between black and white workers
    • Today, wages of unionized African American are 35% higher than non-union

Right to Work

  • Right to work policies remove “close (or union) shop” rules
    • Where employees must be due paying union members
    • Sold as protections of individual freedoms
    • In reality undermines workers’ rights/roll back gains
      • Such as better wages and working conditions unions fought to secure
    • Campaigns started immediately after 1935 Wagner Act
      • Started by white supremacists William Ruggles and Vance Muse in 1941
        • Sold Right to Work as a way to maintain the “color line” in labor
          • They also fought women’s suffrage, the prohibitionof child labor, 5 day work week, etc.
        • By 1944 Arkansas and Florida were first to adopt right to work state law
          • Both states where blacks were denied the right to vote
  • Right to work laws exists in 27 states
    • On average workers pay drop by 3.1% after passage
      • Workers make on average $6,109 less in right to work states a year
    • 36% higher EEOC discrimination charges
    • 12 of the 15 states with the worst pay gaps between men and women are “right to work” states

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and collective bargaining…” Martin Luther King Jr.

AFSCME: Racist Roots of Right-To-Work

Commentary: Labor Unions and the Negro:The Record of Discrimination

The removal of the sanction of law from racial segregation has sharply posed the issue of the Negro’s status in virtually every area of American life. As much as the public schools, religious organizations, and business firms, the labor movement is on trial today. For labor’s democratic ideals are in serious conflict with a tradition of racial discrimination in the unions that is currently very much alive.

To some degree, union discrimination simply reflects the racial and religious prejudices among union members—prejudices that many unionists share with other prejudiced persons. Thus recently in the North, groups of white workers participated in violence against Negroes at Trumbull Park in Chicago and at Levittown, Pennsylvania. And in the South, workers have given considerable support to the White Citizens Councils and other groups seeking to perpetuate segregated institutions.


Further Readings



Racial History of Gun Ownership

Image result for black panther courthouse rifles

Black Panthers protest on the Seattle courthouse steps

Intercept: Second Amendment and White Supremacy

  • Second Amendment
    • Founding fathers only cared about militias being armed not individuals
    • Before the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller
      • Courts had ruled right of individual citizens to bear arms existed only within the context of participation in the militia
    • 18th-century regs required citizens to participate in the militia
      • Also prohibited blacks and Indians from owning guns
    • 2nd amendment was crafted to protect slave patrol militias which protected slavery
      • Patrick Henry, George Mason, James Madison wouldn’t ratify Bill of Rights until “country” was edited to “state”
      • Which would prevent any federal attempt to disband slave militias by keeping it under state control
        • “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State [not country], the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Second Amendment

Washington Post: What the Second Amendment really meant to the Founders

“3. The authors of the Bill of Rights were not concerned with an “individual” or “personal” right to bear arms. 

Before the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, courts had ruled that the right of individual citizens to bear arms existed only within the context of participation in the militia. In Heller, the Supreme Court overturned that precedent, delivering gun rights advocates their biggest legal victory.

This was not, however, a return to an “original understanding” of the Second Amendment, as Justice Antonin Scalia claimed for the majority. It’s not that the Founding Fathers were against the idea of an individual right to bear arms. It just was not an issue that concerned them.

Again, the militia was all important: The men writing the Bill of Rights wanted every citizen to be in the militia, and they wanted everyone in the militia to be armed. If someone was prohibited from participating in the militia, the leaders of the Founders’ generation would not have wanted them to have access to weapons. In fact, the 18th-century regulations that required citizens to participate in the militia also prohibited blacks and Indians from participating as arms-bearing members.

4. The Founding Fathers were very concerned about who should, or should not, be armed.

These restrictions on militia membership are critically important to understand. Because despite the words of the Second Amendment, 18th-century laws did infringe on Americans’ right to bear arms.

Laws rarely allowed free blacks to have weapons. It was even rarer for African Americans living in slavery to be allowed them. In slave states, militias inspected slave quarters and confiscated weapons they found. (There were also laws against selling firearms to Native Americans, although these were more ambiguous.)

These restrictions were no mere footnote to the gun politics of 18th-century America. White Americans were armed so that they could maintain control over nonwhites. Nonwhites were disarmed so that they would not pose a threat to white control of American society.

The restrictions underscore a key point about militias: They were more effective as domestic police forces than they were on the battlefield against enemy nations; and they were most effective when they were policing the African American population…

Today’s Second Amendment

…What remains, though, is the pattern of what Americans will and will not tolerate. In the centuries since the Bill of Rights became law, the strictest gun-control laws have been aimed — sometimes explicitly, sometimes not — at keeping African Americans from arming themselves. Americans have been eager to disarm blacks, but hesitant to disarm whites.

California’s gun-control laws, for instance, began as a reaction to the Black Panthers’ armed patrols and open carry. Yet, when self-proclaimed militiamen engaged in armed resistance to law enforcement at the Bundy ranch in 2014, there was no similar call for new gun laws, and a significant portion of the American political establishment initially expressed support for their actions…

…The United States still seems willing to tolerate a significant degree of instability and violence on the part of white American men, the demographic group responsible for the majority of mass shootings. The United States also seems willing to tolerate daily rates of gun violence that surpass all but the worst mass shootings, in large part because most homicide victims are people of color.

Again, this level of carnage could not have been foreseen by the men who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As Americans, though, we still live our lives and write our laws within the framework that those men left us, including the Second Amendment. At its best, the Second Amendment was a commitment to citizen participation in public life and a way to keep military power under civil control. At its worst, it was a way for whites to maintain their social domination.”

RAW Story: The Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery

“The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote.  Founders Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Madison were totally clear on that . . . and we all should be too. In the beginning, there were the militias. In the South, they were also called the “slave patrols,” and they were regulated by the states.

In Georgia, for example, a generation before the American Revolution, laws were passed in 1755 and 1757 that required all plantation owners or their male white employees to be members of the Georgia Militia, and for those armed militia members to make monthly inspections of the quarters of all slaves in the state.  The law defined which counties had which armed militias and even required armed militia members to keep a keen eye out for slaves who may be planning uprisings.

As Dr. Carl T. Bogus wrote for the University of California Law Review in 1998, “The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search ‘all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition’ and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.”

It’s the answer to the question raised by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained when he asks, “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?”  If the movie were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question, because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer: Well regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.

Sally E. Haden, in her book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, notes that, “Although eligibility for the Militia seemed all-encompassing, not every middle-aged white male Virginian or Carolinian became a slave patroller.” There were exemptions so “men in critical professions” like judges, legislators and students could stay at their work.  Generally, though, she documents how most southern men between ages 18 and 45 – including physicians and ministers – had to serve on slave patrol in the militia at one time or another in their lives.

And slave rebellions were keeping the slave patrols busy.

By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South. Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave uprisings. As Dr. Bogus points out, slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias.

If the anti-slavery folks in the North had figured out a way to disband – or even move out of the state – those southern militias, the police state of the South would collapse. And, similarly, if the North were to invite into military service the slaves of the South, then they could be emancipated, which would collapse the institution of slavery, and the southern economic and social systems, altogether.

These two possibilities worried southerners like James Monroe, George Mason (who owned over 300 slaves) and the southern Christian evangelical, Patrick Henry (who opposed slavery on principle, but also opposed freeing slaves).

Their main concern was that Article 1, Section 8 of the newly-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could also allow that federal militia to subsume their state militias and change them from slavery-enforcing institutions into something that could even, one day, free the slaves.

This was not an imagined threat. Famously, 12 years earlier, during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, Lord Dunsmore offered freedom to slaves who could escape and join his forces. “Liberty to Slaves” was stitched onto their jacket pocket flaps. During the War, British General Henry Clinton extended the practice in 1779. And numerous freed slaves served in General Washington’s army.

Thus, southern legislators and plantation owners lived not just in fear of their own slaves rebelling, but also in fear that their slaves could be emancipated through military service.

At the ratifying convention in Virginia in 1788, Henry laid it out:

…Henry then bluntly laid it out:

“If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress . . . . Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia.”

…Patrick Henry was also convinced that the power over the various state militias given the federal government in the new Constitution could be used to strip the slave states of their slave-patrol militias. He knew the majority attitude in the North opposed slavery, and he worried they’d use the Constitution to free the South’s slaves (a process then called “Manumission”).

…Patrick Henry even argued that southerner’s “property” (slaves) would be lost under the new Constitution, and the resulting slave uprising would be less than peaceful or tranquil:

“In this situation,” Henry said to Madison, “I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone.”

So Madison, who had (at Jefferson’s insistence) already begun to prepare proposed amendments to the Constitution, changed his first draft of one that addressed the militia issue to make sure it was unambiguous that the southern states could maintain their slave patrol militias.

His first draft for what became the Second Amendment had said: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country [emphasis mine]: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

But Henry, Mason and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government.  So Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state,” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State [emphasis mine], the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Little did Madison realize that one day in the future weapons-manufacturing corporations, newly defined as “persons” by a Supreme Court some have called dysfunctional, would use his slave patrol militia amendment to protect their “right” to manufacture and sell assault weapons used to murder schoolchildren.

Settle Colonialism

In order to ensure the ability of White Europeans to ethnic cleanse Native Americans from their lands, while enslaving Africans to labor the land, colonial powers needed to protect the right of white people to own guns while excluding that right for people of color.

According to the New Republic, “In the colonies before the Revolution and in the states right after, racially discriminatory gun laws were commonplace. Fearing revolts, lawmakers enacted statutes barring slaves from possessing firearms or other weapons. That ban was often applied equally to free blacks, who otherwise enjoyed most rights, lest they join in an uprising against the slave system. Where blacks were allowed to possess arms, as in Virginia in the early 1800s, they first had to obtain permission from local officials.”

  • Black Codes (1865 and 1866)
    • Barred the freedmen from possessing guns
    • To enforce these laws, posses formed that would go out at night in large groups, generally wearing disguises, and terrorize black homes, seizing every gun they could find
      • Later were called KKK

Black Codes (1865 and 1866)

According to the New Republic, “After the Civil War there was a rash of gun control laws aimed at disarming blacks. Southern blacks who had long been denied access to firearms were finally able to obtain them during the Civil War. Some served in colored units of the Union Army, which allowed soldiers regardless of skin color to take their guns home with them as partial payment of back-due wages. Other blacks purchased guns in the marketplace, which was flooded with the hundreds of thousands of guns produced for the war. Many predicted, accurately, that they might need those weapons to defend themselves against racist whites unhappy with the Confederacy’s defeat.

Within months of the surrender at Appomattox, recalcitrant white racists committed to the reestablishment of white supremacy determined to take those guns away from blacks. States in the South passed the Black Codes, which barred the freedmen from possessing guns. Racists quickly learned, however, why gun control is not always as effective as planned: You can draw up any law you like, but people don’t necessarily comply. To enforce these laws, racists began to form posses that would go out at night in large groups, generally wearing disguises, and terrorize black homes, seizing every gun they could find. These groups took different names depending on locale: the Black Cavalry in Alabama, the Knights of the White Camellia in Louisiana, the Knights of the Rising Sun in Texas. In time, they all came to be known by the moniker of one such posse begun in Pulaski, Tennessee after the war: the Ku Klux Klan.”

  • Uniform Firearms Acts: 1920s
    • NRA drafted model gun legislation for states to draft
    • Required licenses to own a gun that was extremely hard to get if you weren’t white
      • Determining who was “suitable” under these licensing schemes was left to the discretion of local police
    • Predictably, racial minorities and disfavored immigrants were usually deemed “unsuitable”
      • In 1956, after his house was firebombed, MLK jr was deemed “unsuitable” for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in Montgomery, AL

Unifrom Firearms Act: 1920s

Required licenses to own a gun that was extremely hard to get if you weren’t white.  According to the New Republic, “Like the KKK, the NRA was also formed right after the Civil War. The organization’s first major involvement with promoting gun laws tainted by prejudice was in the 1920s and 30s. In response to urban gun violence often associated with immigrants, especially those from Italy, the NRA’s president, Karl Frederick, helped draft model legislation to restrict concealed carry of firearms in public. States, Frederick’s model law recommended, should only allow concealed carry by people with a license, and those licenses should be restricted to “suitable” people with “proper reason for carrying” a gun in public. Thanks to the NRA’s endorsement, these laws were adopted in the majority of states.

Determining who was “suitable” under these licensing schemes was left to the discretion of local law enforcement. Predictably, racial minorities and disfavored immigrants were usually deemed unsuitable, no matter how serious a threat they faced. In 1956, after his house was firebombed, Martin Luther King Jr. was turned down when he applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in Montgomery, Alabama.”

AJ + NRA’s History of Discriminatory Gun Regulations

  • 1967 California Mulford Act
    • Repealed “open carry” law to disarm Black Panthers from defending themselves from police brutality

1967 Mulford Act

The Mulford Act was a 1967 California bill that repealed a law allowing public carrying of loaded firearms. Named after Republican assemblyman Don Mulford, the bill was crafted in response to members of the Black Panther Party who were conducting armed patrols of Oakland neighborhoods while they were conducting what would later be termed copwatching.  They garnered national attention after the Black Panthers marched bearing arms upon the California State Capitol to protest the bill.

According to the New Republic, “The 1960s saw another wave of gun control laws that were, at least in part, motivated by race. After Malcolm X promised to fight for civil rights “by any means necessary” while posing for Ebony magazine with an M1 Carbine rifle in his hand and the Black Panthers took to streets of Oakland with loaded guns, conservatives like Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, began promoting gun control. Black radicals with guns, coupled with the devastating race riots that wiped out whole neighborhoods in Newark and Detroit in 1967, helped persuade Congress to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968. That law barred felons from purchasing firearms, expanded the licensing of gun dealers, and barred imports of “Saturday Night Specials”—cheap, often poorly made guns that were frequently used for crime by urban youth. As one gun control supporter at the time frankly admitted, a close look at that law revealed that it wasn’t really about controlling guns; it was about controlling blacks. And the NRA, in its signature publication, American Rifleman, took credit for the law and extolled its virtues.”

Timeline: The NRA & Ronald Reagan once opposed the right to open carry

  • Stop and Frisk
    • Officially started in NYC in early 2000s but was around before and expanded officially and unofficially all over country
    • Racially profile people of color to stop and search with cause
      • Looking for drugs or unlicensed/illegal guns
    • Research shows “Stop and Frisk” has little effect on crime but large negative impacts on communities of color

1967 Mulford Act

Gun Ownership and Racism

  • 30% of the US population owns a gun
    • 3% of the population owns half the guns in the country
      • More guns are being stockpiled rather than new owners
    • Since the 2008 election of President Obama
      • The number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. has tripled
    • Scientific American and PEW Studies on Gun Owners
      • Men possess 2x as many guns as women
      • Gun Ownership by race
        • White – 36%
        • Black – 24%
        • Hispanic – 15%
      • Among those who live in
        • rural areas – 46% gun owners,
        • suburbs – 28%
        • urban areas – 19% gun owners
      • Gun ownership by geographic area
        • NE – 16%
        • Midwest – 32%
        • South – 36%
        • West – 31%
      • Republicans are more than twice likely to own a gun
        • Republicans – 41%
        • Democrats – 16%

Reasons Given for Owning Guns

  • Several Scientific American studies found white males stockpiling guns
    • Anxious about their ability to protect their families
    • Insecure about their place in the job market
    • Beset by racial fears
  • Northland College study on concealed gun license applications in Texas
    • Applications drastically increased after election of President Obama
    • Found applicants were overwhelmingly white men who expressed concerns about:
      • Protecting their families
      • Racial anxiety about Obama empowering minorities to threaten property/ families
  • Other Studies
    • UK researchers found a 1 point jump in the scale they used to measure racism
      • Increased the odds of owning a gun by 50%
    • 2016 UIC study found racial resentment from whites
      • Fueled gun control opposition
    • 2017 Social Studies Quarterly study found that gun owners
      • Had become 50% more likely to vote Republican since 1972
      • Gun culture had become strongly associated with explicit racism

The Root: Report: White Men Stockpile Guns Because They’re Afraid of Black People

“In a clear case of reverse racism, an obscure, little-known discipline called “science” has revealed that the vast majority of gun owners are uneducated white males who think black people are preparing to launch a sneak attack against the Caucasians any day now.

A new article in Scientific American by Jeremy Adam Smith (yes, “American” is right there in the name, and the article’s by a white guy! That can’t be right) examined a variety of studies on gun ownership, including a 2017 study by sociologists at Baylor University. Titled “Gun Culture in Action,” the researchers created a “gun-empowerment scale” to study the habits and create a profile of the average gun owner.

What they found was startling. (And by “startling,” I mean it reflected what people like Very Smart Brothas’ Damon Young have been saying all along. So … not startling.)

After studying a representative cross section of gun owners, researchers found that the people who have an emotional attachment to their guns were 78 percent white and 65 percent male. It must be noted that the sample size was small because—despite widespread American gun ownership—just 3 percent of the population owns half the guns in the country.

Racial anxiety was a big reason for the uptick in gun ownership, according to Angela Stroud, a Northland College sociologist. Stroud went through concealed-weapon applications in Texas and interviewed applicants. She found that many of them wanted to protect their loved ones during the impending race war.

Apparently, Barack Obama came to the secret black meeting and told black people to attack the whites. (Wait … you missed the meeting? It was great. Especially the catering. Best watermelon and Kool-Aid I ever tasted.) According to the report:

… Stroud also discovered another motivation: racial anxiety. “A lot of people talked about how important Obama was to get a concealed-carry license: ‘He’s for free health care, he’s for welfare.’ They were asking, ‘Whatever happened to hard work?” Obama’s presidency, they feared, would empower minorities to threaten their property and families.

Here are some of the more notable characteristics of the typical, emotionally attached gun owner:

  • They are less educated: According to Pew Research, about 26 percent of white college graduates own guns, compared with 40 percent of high school graduates and 42 percent of people with some college education. There is no significant difference in the rate of gun ownership across educational attainment among nonwhites.
  • They are racist: A 2013 study shows that a 1-point increase in the index they used to measure racism increased the chance of gun ownership by 50 percent.
  • They are mostly Republican: Social Science Quarterly (there’s that word “science” again) reports that possessing a firearm increases the likelihood of voting Republican.
  • They are struggling financially: “We found that white men who have experienced economic setbacks or worry about their economic futures are the group of owners most attached to their guns,” says Paul Froese, author of “Gun Culture in Action.”
  • They are not very religious: The researchers found that religious men often didn’t have the same attachment to firearms.
  • Many of them are anti-government: The researchers noted that gun owners considered themselves to be patriotic, but reasoned that “government” was different from the “nation.”

The science indicated that most of these traits were not true when they examined nonwhite gun owners and women. Pew Research shows that a larger percentage of blacks have been threatened with a firearm or know someone who has been shot, but white men are more likely to say they need a gun for protection. And while most blacks find gun violence to be a problem in their community, most Republicans say more guns would lead to less crime.

So there you have it. White men need guns to pretect them from the evil Negro monsters roaming the country. They are stockpiling arms like the zombie apocalypse, despite the fact that white men are three times more likely than blacks to kill themselves with a firearm …

Even though white men are more likely to be shot by another white person …

Regardless of the studies that show a gun in the home is also more likely to kill someone in the home than an intruder …

And even though most children who die from gun injuries are killed by a parent, sibling relative or friend …

It’s the scary black people they worry about.

That’s just science.”

NRA Racism

  • Before 1977 NRA was mostly non-political
    • Although they did support racist gun control
  • 1977 shakeup replaced moderate with extremist leaders
    • Changed focus from sportsmanship to political advocacy/propaganda
    • In 1991 Wayne LaPierre became the executive vice president
      • Pushing the NRA to more extreme, incendiary and racist rhetoric
  • History of pushing criminal stereotypes on people of color
    • To create a culture of fear to sell more guns including:
      • Called men of color “thugs”
      • Perpetuated racist terminology like “black-on-black crime”, “illegal aliens”, “radical Muslims”
      • Referred to communities of color as “violent inner cities”
      • Disparaged President Barack Obama, Black Lives Matter, non-native speakers, etc

NRA’s Dana Loesch Propaganda

MIC: How We Talk About Gun Violence

Racial History of Standardized Testing

Image result for racist standardized tests

Racist History of Standardize Testing

“Since segregationist had first developed them in the early twentieth century, standardized tests, from the MCAT to the SAT and IQ exams, had failed time and again to predict success in college and professional careers or even to truly measure intelligence. But these standardized tests had succeeded in their original mission:: figuring out an “objective” way to rule non-whites (and women and poor people) intellectually inferior, and to justify discriminating against them in the admissions process.” Ibram Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning

  • 1920s, Carl Brigham, an Eugenicist, design the SAT
    • Meant to identify white people as superior
    • Bad at determining academic success
    • Good at determining wealth of family students
      • Good scores directly correlate with wealth of family
      • This is true among IQ and other tests

“The bill (No Child Left Behind) professed that its purpose was to keep children from being left behind, but it simultaneously encouraged funding mechanisms that decrease funding to schools when students ware not making improvements, thus leaving the neediest students behind… it was the latest and greatest mechanism for placing the blame for funding inequalities on black children, teachers, parents, and public schools.” Ibram Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning

The Racist Origins of the SAT

Teen Vogue: The History of the SAT Is Mired in Racism and Elitism

“The SAT still promises something it can’t deliver: a way to measure merit.” – Lani Guinier

Standardized tests are supposed to be neutral, value-free assessments of how hard students work. The more students study, the more seriously they take their education, the better they will perform on these tests. In high-stakes settings, standardized tests are used as primary determinants of student access to, or else denial of, resources, opportunities, and spaces. The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) is one such test. Ostensibly, the students who work hardest will earn higher scores, and those scores will give them an upper hand in the college admissions process. This particular narrative neatly aligns with the illusion of America’s meritocratic tradition: Those who work the hardest will reap the greatest benefits, never mind structural inequality. But studies have proven, time and again, that standardized tests are much better at revealing things like household income, race, and level of parental education than they are at predicting the success of students in college classrooms.

In a deeply flawed and unequal educational system that has continuously failed its most vulnerable children and their communities, high-stakes standardized tests function to reinforce that same system. When we accept the myth that these tests are merit-based, we also accept the idea that race and class gaps in standardized-test results, which have remained essentially unchanged over the last 20 years, are due to individual and group shortcomings, not structural ones.

Even if we accept the premise that the best way to create and sustain an ethical, justice-oriented educational system is by rewarding “high-achieving” students, the system remains deeply flawed. The tests themselves have a long history of favoring white, middle-class students by testing bodies of knowledge that are fundamentally white and middle-class; therefore, the tests reinforce the idea that white identity is the default American identity.

In How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, Jay Rosner, a national admissions-test expert, explains a process that was used by SAT designers to decide which questions would be included on the test:

“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by [the Educational Testing Service] (ETS), whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”

In essence, questions for future tests were deemed “good questions” if they replicated the outcomes of previous exams; specifically, tests where black and Latinx students scored lower than their white peers. Test-makers might argue that race was not explicitly used to determine which questions would be included, but the method used was inherently racist and biased toward knowledge held by white students. Beyond the issue of affirming whiteness as a marker of neutrality — as questions are deemed to be good when white students do well on them — the SAT is mired in a long history of racism, classism, and nativism.

The story of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (now Scholastic Assessment Test) begins with [Army IQ tests] that were (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/sats/where/three.html) developed during World War I. In 1917, a group of psychologists, led by then-president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Robert M. Yerkes, created the Army Alpha and Army Beta tests to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the Army identify those of “superior mental ability” and those who were “mentally inferior,” among other things. In 1923, Carl Brigham, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, published A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following: “The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.” This was the era of Jim Crow, de jure segregation, and lynchings.

Armed with the pseudoscience of these American psychologists, eugenicists promoted laws and movements for the preservation of “racial purity.” States began passing laws (later confirmed to be constitutional by a Supreme Court case that permitted the forced sterilization of people with “defective” traits, preventing them from “polluting” America’s ruling class.

In an essay, titled “Hiding Behind High-stakes Testing: Meritocracy, Objectivity and Inequality in U.S. Education,” professor Wayne Au of the University of Washington Bothell wrote, “…the assumptive objectivity of standardized testing was thus used to ‘scientifically’ declare the poor, immigrants, women, and nonwhites in the U.S. as mentally inferior, and to justify educational systems that mainly reproduced extant socioeconomic inequalities.”

Carl Brigham eventually used his experience with Army intelligence tests to create another standardized test, this time for the College Board]. Together, they restructured the Army intelligence tests and came up with the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” which was administered to high school students for the first time in 1926.

Almost a century later, the use of high-stakes standardized testing is ubiquitous in our educational system. And no matter how many iterations of the SAT have been produced since 1926, it still has explicit roots in classism, nativism, and white supremacy. This truth will never change, good intentions notwithstanding. In many ways, the SAT continues to be a tool of the same structural system of white supremacy that it was originally meant to undergird. As long as liberation for all is a thing of the future in this country, high-stakes standardized testing can never be neutral, color- blind, or fair.

If the first wave of widespread high-stakes standardized testing in education came in the 1920s, the modern wave was spurred by the Reagan administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform in 1983. The report read: “Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world….If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” And so began the modern period of relying on data gathered from standardized tests to tell the story of America’s classrooms and as the primary means of understanding the needs of our nation’s children.

From the beginning, the use of high-stakes standardized testing was a bipartisan effort. In 2002, the Bush administration signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law. Mandated by NCLB, schools whose students did not perform high enough on state tests faced sanctions in the form of the loss of federal funding. In the aforementioned essay, Au wrote, “NCLB represents the culmination of a 20-year trajectory of education policy that centered on high-stakes, standardized testing as the tool for enforcing educational reform in the United States.” Barack Obama’s secretary of education Arne Duncan exacerbated this “test and punish” system by doubling down on the use of high-stakes standardized tests to assess teacher and school performance. During this time, federal laws became driving forces behind teacher firings and school closings, which disproportionately affected (and continue to affect) children of color, namely black and Latinx students.

The insistence of far too many people in the field of education to obsessively quantify and measure students, districts, and states while simultaneously disregarding the reasons why discrepancies between groups exist has been the driving force behind a full-frontal attack on black and brown communities throughout the country.

If anything, the SAT — its ubiquity, its usage, its results — is proof of the miles we have left to reach social justice and liberation for all in this country. From the beginning, educators, scholars, and activists have steadily challenged this country’s preferred model of education. Still, the desire and willingness of people to breath life into the fallacy of America’s meritocracy persist.


“It revealed the bait and switch at the heart of standardized -the exact thing that made them unfair: She was teaching taking form for standardized exams that purportedly meaed intellectual strength. My classmates and I would get higher scores–two hundred points, as promised–than poorer students, who might be equivalent in intellectual strength but did not have the resources or, in some cases, even the awareness to acquire better form through high-priced prep courses. Because of the way the human mind works—the so-called “attribution effect,” which drives us to take personal credit for any success–those of us who prepped for the test would score higher and then walk into better opportunities thinking it was all about us: that we were better and smarter than the rest and we even had inarguable, quantifiable proof. Look at our scores! Admissions counselors and professors would assume we were better qualified and admit us to their graduate schools (while also boosting their institutional rankings). And because we’re talking about featureless, objective numbers, no one would ever think that racism could have played a role.

The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies. We degrade Black minds every time we speak of an “academic achievement gap” based on these numbers. The acceptance of an academic-achievement gap is just the latest method of reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority. The idea of an achievement gap means there is a disparity in academic performance between groups of students; implicit in this idea is that academic achievement as measured by statistical instruments like test scores and dropout rates is the only form of academic achievement.” There is an even more sinister implication in achievement-gap talk–that disparities in academic achievement accurately reflect disparities in intelligence among racial groups. Intellect is the linchpin of behavior, and the racist idea of the achievement gap is the linchpin of behavioral racism.

Remember, to believe in a racial hierarchy is to believe in a racist idea. The idea of an achievement gap beyween the races – with Whites and Asians at the top and Blacks and Latinx at creates a racial hierarchy, with its implication that the test scores means something is wrong with the Black test takers and not the tests. From the beginning, the tests, not the people, have always been the racial problem. I know this is a hard idea to accept–so many well-meaning people have tried to “solve” this problem of the racial achievement gap-but once we understand the history and policies behind it, it becomes clear.

The history of race and standardized testing begins in 1869 when English statistician Francis Galton a half cousin of Charles Darwin-hypothesized in Hereditary Genius that the “average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.” Galton pioneered eugenics decades later but failed to develop a testing mechanism that verified his racist hypothesis. Where Galton failed, France’s Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon succeeded, when they developed an IQ test in 1905 that Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman revised and delivered to Americans in 1916. These “experimental” tests would show “enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture,” the eugenicist said in his 1916 book, The Measurement of Intelligence.

Terman’s IQ test was first administered on a major scale to 1.7 million U.S. soldiers during World War I. Princeton psychologist Carl C. Brigham presented the soldiers’ racial scoring gap as evidence of genetic racial hierarchy in A Study of American Intelligence, published three years before he created the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, in 1926. Aptitude means natural ability: Brigham, like other eugenicists, believed the SAT would reveal the natural intellectual ability of White people.

Physicist William Shockley and psychologist Arthur jeres carried these eugenic ideas into the 1960s. By then, explanations-if not the tests and the achievement gap itself had largely been discredited. Segregationists pointing to inferior genes had been overwhelmed in the racist debate over the cause of the achievement gap by assimilationists pointing to inferior environments.

Liberal assimilationists shifted the discourse to “closing the achievement gap,” powering the testing movement into the nineties

when The Bell Curve controversy erupted in 1994 over whether the gap could be closed. “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences” in test scores, wrote Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray in The Bell Curve. The racist idea of an achievement gap lived on into the new millennium through George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and Obama’s Race to the Top and Common Core initiatives that further enlarged the role of standardized testing in determining the success and failure of students and the schools they attended. Through these initiatives and many, many others, education reformers banged the drum of the “achievement gap” to get attention and funding for their equalizing efforts.

But what if, all along, these well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap have been opening the door to racist ideas? What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from – and not inferior to-the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we realized the best way to ensure an effective educational system is not by standardizing our curricula and tests but by standardizing the opportunities available to all students?

In Pennsylvania, a recent statewide study found that at any given poverty level, districts with a higher proportion of White students receive significantly more funding than districts with more students of color. The chronic underfunding of Black schools in Mississippi is a gruesome sight to behold. Schools lack basic supplies, basic textbooks, healthy food and water. The lack of resources leads directly to diminished opportunities for learning. In other words, the racial problem is the opportunity gap, as antiracist reformers not the achievement gap.” Ibram Kendi, How to be an Antiracist

Author and professor Ibram X. Kendi joins us to discuss his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” He talks about the racist development of intelligence tests that blatantly discriminate against people of color under a veneer of scientific objectivity. “Even when we talk about antiracism, when most people think of who needs to be an antiracist, they think of Southerners. They think of people who voted for Trump,” says Kendi. “They don’t think of people who are advocating for the maintenance of these tests, which are denying access to some of the best schools in New York City to black and Latino kids.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Our guest for the hour is Ibram X. Kendi, on the day of the release of his new book, How to Be an Antiracist. He has won the National Book Award, the youngest person ever to win the National Book Award for Nonfiction, for his previous book. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Fox News TV personality Tucker Carlson is under fire for insisting that white supremacy is a hoax and not a real problem in America. Carlson made the remarks on his program last week.

TUCKER CARLSON: The whole thing is a lie. If you were to assemble a list, a hierarchy of concerns or problems this country faces, where would white supremacy be on the list? Right up there with Russia probably. It’s actually not a real problem in America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re continuing our discussion with Ibram Kendi. Your reaction to Tucker Carlson?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I mean, these are some of the same types of people who say that the Holocaust was a hoax. They say that racism is a hoax. They say that slavery was good for black people. I mean, this is the ideology, right? Because when they can’t deny the obvious evidence that shows that domestic white supremacist terrorism is on the rise, that it is the principal form of domestic terror that is affecting American lives, they just deny its existence completely. And that’s certainly what he’s doing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — in your previous books, you looked at the history of racist ideas in the United States, and one of the issues that you focused on was the development of intelligence tests and the history of intelligence tests in terms of being racially motivated from the very beginning, and so many young people in the African-American and Latino communities are basically oppressed and classified and cast aside as a result of their performance on various intelligence tests.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah. So, currently, in most intelligence tests, Latinos and black people receive lower scores than whites and Asians. The question is: What is the problem? Is there a problem with the test takers or the test? And for a hundred years, Americans have made the case that black people, Latino people are not achieving intellectually as much as other people, as much as white people. And I would argue, no, the problem isn’t with these test takers; the problem is with the tests themselves.

These are tests that were created by eugenicists. When you look at the person who created the SAT test, when you look at the person who first popularized the IQ test in the United States, these were avowed eugenicists.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, go into that more fully. We’ve got the hour here, and this is an astounding history you write about.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I mean, Lewis Terman, for instance, who wrote, a century ago, this book called — in which he sort of sought to promote this new IQ test that he had brought over from Europe — in that book, he talked about that these tests will prove that black people are intellectually inferior. I mean, this was the hypothesis that he put forth in a book that promoted the original IQ test a century ago. And Carl Brigham, who essentially established the SAT test a decade later, in the ’20s, was a eugenicist from Princeton.

I mean, these are eugenicists who created these tests, not just to prove that Latinos and black people were inferior to white people, but also to prove that women were genetically intellectually inferior to men, that poor people were genetically intellectually inferior to wealthy people, that Southerners — I mean, everyone — that non-Anglo-Saxons were intellectually inferior to Anglo-Saxons. And so, this test became the evidence that they had been looking for, really, for hundreds of years, to prove that people of color and poor people and women were intellectually inferior.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what the College Board has recently announced, that they are adding an Environmental Context Dashboard for all students taking the SATs. What does this mean?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I’m trying to figure that out, too. One thing I think many — the College Board, ETS, some of these other institutions that have been under fire, by not only antiracists, but even parents who don’t want their children being in these high-stakes testing environments. And I think they’re figuring out new ways to essentially maintain the existence of these tests. And certainly, this is a way to respond to those who are fundamentally pointing to the environment as the problem, and not necessarily the test takers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, here in New York City, Mayor de Blasio has been attempting to eliminate the standardized tests for the most elite high schools in the city, because, actually, the number of African Americans and Latinos admitted into this highly specialized high school has been dropping, hasn’t been increasing even as the population has been. But he’s met enormous resistance at the state level, and he has not been able to get that through. Your sense of this battle that’s been going on, not only in New York City, but across the country, over tests?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I’ve been following that, and what I’ve specifically been following is those parents who come to town halls and argue for the maintenance of tests. Many of these parents, though certainly not all, have said things like, “My kids are scoring on the test because they work hard.” Those other black and Latinx kids, obviously, the implication is, they’re not working hard. What they’re not talking about, though, is that the test prep companies, the test prep tutors, the test prep industry is concentrated in New York City in white and Asian neighborhoods, so it makes sense that those who get the best test prep and who have the most access to resources to pay for test prep are going to do the best on these tests.

AMY GOODMAN: And very interesting, and probably a corollary of all that, is that the New York schools, the public schools, are the most segregated in the country.

IBRAM X. KENDI: In the country. It is —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re not talking about the South here; we’re talking about New York.

IBRAM X. KENDI: And I think that’s an incredibly important point, because even when we talk about antiracism, when most people think of who needs to be an antiracist, they think of Southerners. They think of people who voted for Trump. They don’t think of people who are advocating for the maintenance of these tests, which are denying access to some of the best schools in New York City to black and Latino kids.

AMY GOODMAN: This brings us to the presidential race, to former vice president, 2020 presidential hopeful Joe Biden, who is coming under fire after he recently contrasted “poor kids” with “white kids” at an event hosted by the Iowa Asian & Latino Coalition.

JOE BIDEN: We have this notion that somehow if you’re poor, you cannot do it. Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids — wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Biden later said he misspoke while delivering his remarks. Ibram Kendi?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I mean, if he misspoke, there’s a reason why he misspoke to begin with, right? And I think that this idea — right? — connecting poor kids to black kids, is quite widespread, just like there’s an idea that connects rich kids with white kids, which not only — and so, with the first, it not only sort of recognizes that, actually, the majority of black people in this country are not poor, but in the case of connecting rich kids with white kids, you are ignoring all of these poor white kids — right? — who are classified by white racists as “white trash.” That’s a racialized term that imagines — right? — that there is something wrong with poor white people, and they have less because they are less.

Further Readings

Daily Beast: The Racist Origins of the SAT

NEA: The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing

Racial History of American Medicine

The Disturbing History of American Medicine | Racist American History

VOX: The US medical system is still haunted by slavery

WP: American medicine was built on the backs of slaves. And it still affects how doctors treat patients today.

In 1894, the Journal of the American Medical Association announced that, for the first time in American history, a public statue had been “erected to the memory of a member of the medical profession”: J. Marion Sims. First unveiled in Bryant Park in New York City, that monument bore an inscription celebrating a physician “whose brilliant achievements carried the fame of American surgery throughout the civilized world.”

Indeed, Sims compiled pathbreaking accomplishments: designing the vaginal speculum, developing a treatment for vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) and building a successful medical career promoting VVF repair. He would serve as president of the American Medical Association and was dubbed the “father of modern gynecology.” In 1934, the statue of Sims was relocated to a new place of honor in Central Park. For more than eight decades, it stood directly across from the New York Academy of Medicine, a potent symbol of Sims’s stature in American medicine.

But to modern eyes, Sims’s record looks far more complicated. The VVF treatment he developed, for example, came as a result of experiments he performed on black slaves. In response to growing public outcry, New York City removed the statue of Sims from Central Park in April, while activists are urging the removal of a similar statue from the Alabama Capitol. But removing symbols that venerate Sims will be most effective only if this step fosters broader conversations not only about his career but also about how its historical context still influences modern medicine. We must address the ways racism and slavery shaped American medicine, not only to right past wrongs but also to confront how that influence continues to affect how patients are treated today.

The systematic influence of institutional racism on American medicine goes far beyond any individual physician. Yet Sims’s career is an excellent starting point because the history of American gynecology is particularly associated with the institution of slavery.

After 1808, when a federal ban on importing slaves from other countries took effect, the perpetuation of American slavery became dependent on domestic slave births. That aligned the economic interests of slave owners — who wanted to promote the healthy births of slave children — and the interests of white physicians — who portrayed themselves as helping slaves but also reaped professional benefits because they could experiment on slaves without their consent. As historian Deirdre Cooper Owens has observed, those economic incentives drove medical innovation. Gynecological examinations of black women influenced the country’s slave markets, and “slavery, medicine and medical publishing formed a synergistic partnership” in the establishment of gynecology as a medical specialty in the United States.

Under these incentives, understanding and treating gynecological problems became particularly important. A condition such as VVF threatened a slave woman’s ability to perform hard labor as well as her future reproductive capacity. So Sims had plenty of motivation to devote four years to experimenting on 14 slaves with VVF whom he housed on his property, including 30 experiments on a single woman named Anarcha. This experimentation resulted in a landmark development in the history of gynecology: successful treatment of VVF with the use of silver wire. But from the perspective of slave owners, this development was more notable because the new treatment meant that healed slaves could retain their economic value.

Racist beliefs associated with slavery also provided perceived ethical justifications for conducting repeated invasive experiments like those Sims performed. Sims carried out his experiments on women’s genitalia from 1845 to 1849 without anesthesia, which had recently been introduced. In addition to their status as enslaved people, black women were considered appropriate subjects for such experiments based on the widespread belief that black people experienced less pain than white people.

Such ideas had helped rationalize the enslavement of black Americans and received the imprimatur of 19th-century medicine. For example, prominent physicians of the day contended that black people possessed thicker skulls and less sensitive nervous systems. Such racist beliefs about pain tolerance permeated American society and persisted well beyond the institution of slavery. Indeed, a 1950 biography of Sims suggested that slave women endured his VVF experiments “with amazing patience and fortitude — a grim stoicism which may have been part of their racial endowment.”

Sims’s experiments to repair VVF would never be condoned today. But the racist views that underpinned his achievements are no mere relic of the past.

As New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett has argued, the failure of medical institutions to grapple with the legacy of racism in medical experimentation is contributing to ongoing racial disparities in health outcomes. Racist health beliefs have proven remarkably durable not only because they were at the core of medical advances such as VVF repair but also because of an ongoing absence of “critical thinking and writing on racism and health in mainstream medical journals.” For example, the belief in biological differences in pain tolerance between black and white patients continues to affect American medical practice today — just one of a number of troubling beliefs about biological racial differences plaguing modern medicine.

A 2016 survey found that about half of white medical students and residents in the sample endorsed false beliefs about biological differences between black and white patients. For example, 25 percent of medical residents agreed that blacks have thicker skin than whites. Strikingly, “participants who endorsed more false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites showed a racial bias in the accuracy of their treatment recommendations.” These disparities remain particularly stark in obstetrics and gynecology. Today, black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

The persistence of racist medical beliefs, and their association with ongoing racial disparities in treatment and patient outcomes, represents a major challenge for 21st-century American medicine. Part of the process of addressing these ongoing disparities will involve reexamining incomplete or misleading historical narratives that contributed to their development. For more than a century, American medical societies, literature and textbooks have celebrated Sims’s achievements while largely ignoring the racist assumptions and institutions that made them possible.

Today, the pedestal in Central Park where Sims once stood is empty. A placard at the bottom reads that “plans are being developed to commission a new monument on the site.” One possibility would be a monument to the “mothers of American gynecology”: Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey and the other slave women upon whom Sims experimented, and whom he also enlisted to assist him as medical assistants. Their bodies and their labor have been rendered invisible for nearly two centuries, yet they, too, are part of the history of American medicine.

But beyond the decision about whether and how to replace a specific statue in Central Park, the greater challenge is to confront the broader racist beliefs that continue to influence American medical practice. Understanding the fuller context of Sims’s famed career is critical to addressing the racial inequities that remain today. And reevaluating the stories we tell about the past is a step to informing a more equitable future. That would be a greater medical legacy than any bronze monument.

Medicine as White Supremacy Jsutifications

According to Dismantling Racism Project: A History: The Construction of Race and Racism

In 1850, Robert Knox in The Races of Man: A Fragment took popular prejudices and formed them into “scientific conviction” that race and intelligence are linked and hereditary. Robert Knox was a famous English anatomist. Knox concluded that people of color were intellectually inferior, not because of brain size but rather because of brain texture and lack of nerve endings. Later it was found that his conclusion was based on the autopsy of only one man of color. Knox’s studies and others were taken very seriously, which can be seen as the origins of the 20th Century Eugenics movement.


According to Dismantling Racism Project: A History: The Construction of Race and Racism

Eugenics is an effort to breed better human beings by encouraging the reproduction of people with “good” genes and discouraging those with “bad” genes. Eugenicists effectively lobbied for social legislation to keep racial and ethnic groups separate, to restrict immigration from Asia, Africa and southern and eastern Europe, and to sterilize people considered “genetically unfit. Elements of the American eugenics movement were models for the Nazis, whose radical adaptation of eugenics culminated in the Holocaust. The United States took Eugenics and ran with it, making it part of mainstream society. By 1928, 376 separate college courses, which enrolled 20,000 students focused on Eugenics. And an analysis of high school text books from 1914 to 1948 indicates that the majority presented Eugenics as legitimate.

According to History.com

“As social Darwinist rationalizations of inequality gained popularity in the late 1800s, British scholar Sir Francis Galton (a half-cousin of Darwin) launched a new “science” aimed at improving the human race by ridding society of its “undesirables.” He called it eugenics.

Galton proposed to better humankind by propagating the British elite. He argued that social institutions such as welfare and mental asylums allowed inferior humans to survive and reproduce at higher levels than their superior counterparts in Britain’s wealthy class.

Galton’s ideas never really took hold in his country, but they became popular in America where the concepts of eugenics quickly gained strength.

Eugenics became a popular social movement in the United States that peaked in the 1920s and 1930s. Books and films promoted eugenics, while local fairs and exhibitions held “fitter family” and “better baby” competitions around the country.

The eugenics movement in the United States focused on eliminating undesirable traits from the population. Proponents of the eugenics movement reasoned the best way to do this was by preventing “unfit” individuals from having children.

During the first part of the twentieth century, 32 U.S. states passed laws that resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 64,000 Americans including immigrants, people of color, unmarried mothers and the mentally ill.”

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924

On March 20, 1924, the Virginia General Assembly passed two laws that had arisen out of contemporary concerns about eugenics and race: SB 219, titled “The Racial Integrity Act” and SB 281, “An ACT to provide for the sexual sterilization of inmates of State institutions in certain cases”, henceforth referred to as “The Sterilization Act”. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was one of a series of laws designed to prevent interracial relationships.

The Racial Integrity Act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth and divided society into only two classifications: white and colored (essentially all other, which included numerous American Indians). It defined race by the “one-drop rule“, defining as “colored” persons with any African or Native American ancestry. It also expanded the scope of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage (anti-miscegenation law) by criminalizing all marriages between white persons and non-white persons. In 1967 the law was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in its ruling on Loving v. Virginia.

The Sterilization Act provided for compulsory sterilization of persons deemed to be “feebleminded,” including the “insane, idiotic, imbecile, or epileptic.”

These two laws were Virginia’s implementation of Harry Laughlin‘s “Model Eugenical Sterilization Law”,[3] published two years earlier in 1922. The Sterilization Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927). This had appealed the order for compulsory sterilization of Carrie Buck, who was an inmate in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, and her daughter and mother.

Together these laws implemented the practice of “scientific eugenics” in Virginia.

Thought Co: The U.S. Government’s Role in Sterilizing Women of Color

Black, Puerto Rican, and Native American women have been victimized

Imagine going to the hospital for a common surgical procedure such as an appendectomy, only to find out afterward that you’d been sterilized. In the 20th century, untold numbers of women of color endured such life-altering experiences in part because of medical racism. Black, Native American, and Puerto Rican women report being sterilized without their consent after undergoing routine medical procedures or after giving birth.

Others say they unknowingly signed documentation allowing them to be sterilized or were coerced into doing so. The experiences of these women strained relations between people of color and healthcare personnel. In the 21st century, members of communities of color still widely distrust medical officials.

Black Women Sterilized in North Carolina

Countless numbers of Americans who were poor, mentally ill, from minority backgrounds or otherwise regarded as “undesirable” were sterilized as the eugenics movement gained momentum in the United States. Eugenicists believed that measures should be taken to prevent “undesirables” from reproducing so that problems such as poverty and substance abuse would be eliminated in future generations. By the 1960s, tens of thousands of Americans were sterilized in state run eugenics programs, according to NBC News. North Carolina was one of 31 states to adopt such a program.

Between 1929 and 1974 in North Carolina, 7,600 people were sterilized. Eighty-five percent of those sterilized were women and girls, while 40 percent were minorities (most of whom were black). The eugenics program was eliminated in 1977 but legislation permitting involuntary sterilization of residents remained on the books until 2003.

Since then, the state has tried to devise a way to compensate those it sterilized. Up to 2,000 victims were believed to be still living in 2011. Elaine Riddick, an African American woman, is one of the survivors. She says she was sterilized after giving birth in 1967 to a child she conceived after a neighbor raped her when she was just 13 years old.

“Got to the hospital and they put me in a room and that’s all I remember,” she told NBC News. “When I woke up, I woke up with bandages on my stomach.”

She didn’t discover that she’d been sterilized until a doctor informed her that she’d been “butchered” when Riddick was unable to have children with her husband. The state’s eugenics board ruled that she should be sterilized after she was described in records as “promiscuous” and “feebleminded.”

Puerto Rican Women Robbed of Reproductive Rights

More than a third of women in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico were sterilized from the 1930s to the 1970s as a result of a partnership between the U.S. government, Puerto Rican lawmakers and medical officials. The United States has ruled the island since 1898. In the decades following, Puerto Rico experienced a number of economic problems, including a high unemployment rate. Government officials decided that the island’s economy would experience a boost if the population were reduced.

Many of the women targeted for sterilization were reportedly working class, as doctors didn’t think poor women could manage to effectively use contraception. Moreover, many women received sterilizations for free or for very little money as they entered the work force. Before long, Puerto Rico won the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest sterilization rate. So common was the procedure that it was widely known as “La Operacion” among islanders.

Thousands of men in Puerto Rico underwent sterilizations as well. Roughly a third of Puerto Ricans sterilized reportedly did not understand the nature of the procedure, including that it meant they would not be able to bear children in the future.

Sterilization was not the only way in which Puerto Rican women’s reproductive rights were violated. U.S. pharmaceutical researchers also experimented on Puerto Rican women for human trials of the birth control pill in the 1950s. Many women experienced severe side effects such as nausea and vomiting. Three even died. The participants had not been told that the birth control pill was experimental and that they were participating in a clinical trial, only that they were taking medication to prevent pregnancy. The researchers in that study were later accused of exploiting women of color to acquire FDA approval of their drug.

The Sterilization of Native American Women

Native American women also report enduring government-ordered sterilizations. Jane Lawrence details their experiences in her Summer 2000 piece for American Indian Quarterly—“The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women.” Lawrence reports how two teenage girls had their tubes tied without their consent after undergoing appendectomies at an Indian Health Service (IHS) hospital in Montana. Also, a young American Indian woman visited a doctor asking for a “womb transplant,” apparently unaware that no such procedure exists and that the hysterectomy she’d had earlier meant that she and her husband would never have biological children.

“What happened to these three females was a common occurrence during the 1960s and 1970s,” Lawrence states. “Native Americans accused the Indian Health Service of sterilizing at least 25 percent of Native American women who were between the ages of 15 and 44 during the 1970s.”

Lawrence reports that Native American women say INS officials did not give them complete information about sterilization procedures, coerced them to sign paperwork consenting to such procedures and gave them improper consent forms, to name a few. Lawrence says Native American women were targeted for sterilization because they had higher birthrates than white women and that white male doctors used minority women to gain expertise in performing gynecological procedures, among other dubious reasons.

Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope website has questioned whether as many Native American women were sterilized as Lawrence cited in her piece. However, he does not deny that women of color were indeed targets of sterilization. Those women who were sterilized reportedly suffered greatly. Many marriages ended in divorce and the development of mental health problems ensued.

The Atlantic: America’s Health Segregation Problem

Sixty-two years ago Tuesday, the Supreme Court passed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, finding that “segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.” That decision, pertaining to de jure segregation in public schools, became the groundwork for dismantling many of the formal systems of racial segregation that pervaded both the South and the North in the century following the Civil War. Brown v. Board was a key milestone in the civil-rights movement, and a key weapon for that movement’s future successes.

Ever since, the anniversary of Brown v. Board has provided an opportunity for assessing just how far the country has come since the Jim Crow days of naked segregation. The results have been, at best, mixed. Last year, one such assessment detailed the rise of “apartheid schools” that are virtually all black, and the corresponding re-emergence of de facto segregation in public education. Some schools, such as those of Cleveland, Mississippi, still face new court orders to integrate. In other policy areas, the “new Jim Crow,” inspired by Michelle Alexander’s book of that name, has come to be used as an apt categorization of broad disparities in criminal-justice policy. Housing segregation is still rampant, and segregation of black people in areas of concentrated poverty has only accelerated in the past decade. But one of the most enduring—and least noticed—areas of racial segregation even after Brown v. Board has been health care.

Segregation is baked into the way people and institutions discuss health care at its most basic levels. Racial differences in almost every health outcome—from infant mortality to life expectancy––are obvious and pronounced, especially between white people and black people. Perhaps because of the sheer size of the evidence of health disparities, all sides of health-policy debates acknowledge their existence, a consensus that has yet to be achieved in debates about education or criminal justice. Yet segregation in health care is rarely discussed in those terms, and its importance in shaping the larger narrative of race in America is often ignored.

Like other forms of segregation, health-care segregation was originally a function of explicitly racist black codes and Jim Crow laws. Many hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices were totally segregated by race, and many more maintained separate wings or staff that could never intermingle under threat of law. The deficit of trained black medical professionals (itself caused by a number of factors including education segregation) meant that no matter where black people received health-care services, they would find their care to be subpar compared to that of whites. While there were some deaths that were directly attributable to being denied emergency service, most of the damage was done in establishing the same cumulative health disparities that plague black people today as a societal fate. The descendants of enslaved people lived much more dangerous and unhealthy lives than white counterparts, on disease-ridden and degraded environments. Within the confines of a segregated health-care system, these factors became poor health outcomes that shaped black America as if they were its genetic material.

The sweeping tide of Civil Rights papered over the fissures that were built into Jim Crow-era health-care, but progress was slow and proved much more difficult to assess than progress in education or housing. Generations of strict geographical segregation left hospitals that served black people deeply segregated, understaffed, and under-resourced. The number of black physicians has never come close to matching their demographic share of the total population. Unlike the temporary integration gains in education, there is no real high-water mark for the state of health-care integration.

The 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act aimed to set that mark. The ACA functioned as a stealthy civil-rights achievement of the Obama presidency, promising to make health care less of a financial burden, end disparities in health-care coverage, ease barriers to access for people of color, and subsidize preventative health-care services that proved especially lacking in black neighborhoods.

Although the ACA has undoubtedly succeeded at some of those metrics and is still being evaluated for some others, the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in NFIB v. Sebelius seriously weakened its most key provision. The broad Medicaid expansion to poor people was effectively turned into a state opt-in, and state decisions to expand Medicaid have so far been largely based on ideological grounds. Southern conservative governors and legislatures opposing the ACA on party lines or concerns about expanded federal authority and the costs of the program have formed most of the resistance to the ACA. And many of their states have large black populations. Seven of the ten states with the highest black populations chose not to expand Medicaid. Overall, more than half of the people who are now categorically unable to access any affordable health coverage are people of color. Thirty percent of people without affordable coverage options are black.

The ACA could still be the rising tide that lifts all ships. The law has resulted in record lows in uninsured rates, a development welcome in communities of color, where rates are dropping the fastest. Black people were also historically vulnerable in the states that chose to expand Medicaid, and provisions for community health centers, preventative care, and physician training might end up reducing segregation in purely utilitarian terms. It is also very early in the history of the ACA, and its true impacts are likeliest to be felt—and best measured—over decades.

But even at its best, the ACA alone probably can’t solve all of the problems posed by health-care segregation, and coverage exclusions could engender a whole new class of problems. Neighborhood segregation is still correlated with the likelihood of hospital closings, and the safety-net hospitals that often serve black people have been under extraordinary financial stress, which shows up in outcomes and quality of care. Neighborhood segregation is generally linked to poor health outcomes and less extensive treatment options from physicians. Health care providers are less likely to provide certain screening options for black patients, even with an increased focus on preventative health in the ACA. Despite shortages of doctors of color, these understaffed physicians’ offices are more often than not responsible for sicker patients of color. And with the racialization of exclusion from affordable coverage, in essence the health of people who are already healthier is subsidized while those who have historically needed coverage the most are left out.

Over six decades after desegregation kicked off in earnest with Brown v. Board, America has not traveled far in its journey to escape health-care segregation. At every turn of life, black people and the greater community of color are still beset with a minefield of health-care dilemmas that don’t always exist for everyone else, as they have always been. The ACA represents a crossroads, and the fulfillment of over a half-century of integration rhetoric depends on how future policies embrace its spirit of change. The health-policy debate over the next several years will help answer the most basic question at the heart of every debate about segregation: Just what does America want to be?

Vice: Being Black in America Is a Health Risk. It’s Time for Reparations.

While history offers ample justification for reparations, there’s an especially undeniable set of circumstances that illustrate the need to move forward with H.R. 40: Black people in the United States have, since slavery, been systematically overexposed to health risks while also being deprived of healthcare. This lethal combination continues to cause suffering and death, as well as a massive and measurable loss of wealth, because it is expensive to be sick in the U.S.

A healthcare-specific argument for reparations, then, should not be controversial. Public policies have made generations of Black people sick, and those losses ought to be paid back, in cash. Arguments for reparations are often dismissed by detractors who say they personally can’t explain how reparations would work and therefore, by some failure of logic, conclude no one possibly can.

But H.R. 40 could set out to calculate how much families have lost, from hospital charges to days of missed work, and arrive at a dollar amount that Black Americans are owed—unless Congress decides they would rather not know the answer.

It’s not hard to put numbers to this.

The disparities by the numbers

There’s no denying that being Black in America is a health risk. Racial health disparities have been extensively documented when it comes to asthma, arthritis, aggressive breast cancer, kidney disease, heart failure, maternal mortality, lung disease, chemical exposures, and overall life expectancy.

“Racial health disparities have existed as long as medicine has existed in this country,” said Brian Smedley, executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity.

The persistence of these disparities is astounding. In 1896, the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois showed that Black children under five were three times more likely to die than white kids; today, Black infants are still twice as likely to die as white babies. In 1915, Booker T. Washington estimated that 45 percent of Black deaths were completely preventable. Nearly 100 years later, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars investigated why so many more Black Americans die before they turn 65 than white Americans. They found that 70 percent of the gap in early deaths was from treatable conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and appendicitis.


Illustration by Mona Chalabi. Source: BMJ, 2005


Illustration by Mona Chalabi. Source: BMJ, 2005

How many people have died from racial health disparities? In 2005, David Satcher, the former surgeon general, and colleagues, published an analysis of 40 years of death rates using data from the National Center for Health Statistics. In 1960, racial health disparities took the lives of more than 60,000 Black Americans. By 2000, the number had reached nearly 84,000. While the number of people dying from racial disparities has decreased since the early 2000s, let’s put this into perspective: For decades, the number of people dying from racial health disparities in the U.S. was even higher than the number dying from opioid overdoses today—yet only one of these crises was ever splashed all over the media and designated a national emergency.

You don’t have to go too far into the past to find the underlying causes of these health disparities

From the Middle Passage to slave labor camps to Jim Crow to the present, at the root of these disparities is segregation, which, as a matter of public policy, sorted Black people into places that incubate illness. The effect, according to Rodney Hood, the former president of the National Medical Association, in a 2001 column on reparations, has been to repeatedly lock Black people into “contagious, cruel, and stressful” environments while also locking them out of healthcare.

Mary Anne Adams is a 64-year-old Black woman who was born during the reign of Jim Crow in Oxford, Mississippi. The South that Mary Anne was born into by law restricted Black people from receiving healthcare. Jim Crow laws segregated hospitals in Mississippi and made it illegal for nurses to treat Black men in Alabama. One out of three hospitals in the South would not treat Black people even in emergencies, according to a study published the year after Mary Anne was born.

Though Mary Anne was one of 10 children, none were born in hospitals—indeed, fewer than 10 percent of all Black infants were born in hospitals in Mississippi at that time. “I have no recollection of Black women going to a hospital to give birth,” Adams said.

The outcome is what you would expect: Before the federal government forced desegregation in hospitals, more than six times as many Black babies were dying of diarrhea and pneumonia than white infants in Mississippi.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Missouri, a series of conscious policy decisions segregated the city, ultimately creating an 18-year Black-white disparity in life expectancy. As VICE has previously reported, the real estate industry put an enormous amount of blood, sweat, and white tears into this effort, starting with a 1916 racial zoning ordinance, which kept Black people from moving onto blocks that were mostly white. When the Supreme Court ended the ordinance, industry leaders turned to racial deed covenants, which said white home buyers couldn’t rent to Black people. When the courts stopped them from using those covenants, they created residential security maps, which allowed lenders to deny Black people mortgages on the basis of “undesirability” or other less overtly racist-sounding euphemisms. This practice, known as redlining because of the red color applied to the “undesirable” areas on maps, resulted in only 3.3 percent of Black people in St. Louis having mortgages by the early 1960s.

The result of these and other practices, such as designing highways that cut off Black neighborhoods, has been to trap Black people in places with greater exposure to environmental threats like air pollution and lead poisoning, while cutting off access to social goods like quality food and pharmacies.

Not only do these environments lead to Black communities facing higher rates of health problems, but at every step of the healthcare-seeking process, Black people run into man-made barriers: There are often fewer choices of providers in their communities, transportation barriers to seeing those providers, and higher costs to get the care needed. Even if people can clear those hurdles, there’s a risk of not receiving the same quality treatment as white patients for the same conditions, too often with deadly consequences.

For example, people with aggressive prostate cancer need surgery or a combination of radiation and hormone therapy. “Our data show that Black men with this form of prostate cancer are less likely to get any treatment in such circumstances,” said Quoc-Dien Trinh, an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. “If Black men don’t get treated when they have lethal cancer, then obviously they will appear to die more often from this form of cancer.”

Exactly how much do Black people pay?

Since the nation has been indifferent toward the human cost of these racial health disparities, scholars have tried to provoke concern by calculating their financial cost.

“We believe that policy makers should be motivated by the social justice argument, however for some that’s not enough,” said Darrell Gaskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions. “We wanted policymakers to know that injustice comes with a hefty price tag.”

The price tag Gaskin and colleagues calculated totaled $45.3 billion in healthcare costs and another $9.6 billion in lost wages for Black Americans in 2009 alone. While insurance covered an estimated 40 percent of those healthcare costs, Black people spent a staggering $12.5 billion out of pocket in just one year because of racial health disparities.

“It’s a combination of both the direct and indirect costs of medical care,” said John Ayanian, professor of medicine and director of the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation at the University of Michigan. “If conditions like diabetes or asthma or high blood pressure are not diagnosed early, those conditions will worsen and people will develop more complications, and those complications can cause significant direct medical costs—particularly if people are uninsured or underinsured.

“There are also substantial indirect costs, when people have to take time off from work because they or a family member is ill or losing a job because of their health,” Ayanian said.

Black women with breast cancer, for example, are five times as likely to lose their private insurance and more than twice as likely to lose their jobs than white women with breast cancer. One reason, according to Jenny Spencer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is that the “time cost” of cancer is different for Black women. “Black women may be disproportionately likely to have jobs that do not offer flexibility in hours or paid sick leave,” Spencer said. In North Carolina, women also often have to drive a long distance or pay for a taxi or bus to get to a cancer clinic.

When Louise Tatum, of the South Side of Chicago, was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she felt failed by her community hospital, which lost her records and sent letters to the wrong doctor. Tatum, who is Black, travels an hour each way in a shared van for daily radiation treatments. A half-hour procedure is turned into a two-and-a-half hour journey at least, a consequence of how segregation puts distance between people and the services they will die without. “I almost urinated twice in the van, because no one would drop me off,” she said of one recent trip.

Since she started treatment, Tatum has lost her job. “There are not many things I can do,” she said. “I have swelling where I had my surgery and now I have radiation every single day. I haven’t had income since October.”

Black people individually pay a staggering price for health disparities, both because of how much they lose when they are sick, like Tatum, and how much more they have to pay because their disease is often much worse by the time they get care. Take the racial disparity in stroke: when a Black person has a stroke, they face an average cost of $25,782, while white people with the same condition are looking at $15,597. Black people pay roughly the same $10,000 racial tax for heart failure ($82,929 vs. $73,985).


Illustration by Mona Chalabi. Source: Neurology, 2006


Illustration by Mona Chalabi. Source: Neurology, 2006

Or consider that Black children more frequently need to visit the emergency room for asthma attacks—at an average cost of $2,116, according to Medical Expenditure Panel data—since they’re at greater risk of not having a primary care provider than white children. In Chicago alone, Respiratory Health Association researchers found that Black kids were five times as likely as white kids to visit the ER and determined that preventable charges totaled $6.1 million annually. That doesn’t include the costs of missed days of school and childcare.

Two of Rolinda Robinson’s daughters suffered from severe asthma attacks. Living in the Austin area of the West Side of Chicago, Robinson often drove her children nearly a half hour in the middle of the night to an emergency room she trusted, only to wait two or three hours to be seen. “We would be sitting in the emergency room until the next day to the point where I would be so drained that I could not go to work the next day, as well as she would be so sick that she would not be able to go to school or daycare,” Robinson said.

Though Robinson had health insurance for most of her children’s lives, her insurance did not cover all of the expenses that come with being a single parent trying to care for children with asthma. “There was the constant cost of going back and forth to ER, the gas to get there, paying for parking, and missing time off work,” she explained.

One of the straightest lines we can draw between a racial health disparity and lost wages is lead poisoning. For at least 20 years, it has been known that Black children are at a much greater risk of lead poisoning, a clear consequence of housing segregation that exposes them to lead-based paint and contaminated soil and water.

Lead poisoning has a destructive effect on health, which directly affects a person’s lifelong ability to make money: Children endure behavioral and cognitive problems that may hinder their chances at doing well in school and on tests. “There is strong evidence that exposure to lead in early childhood negatively affects a developing brain and has long-term negative effects on both cognitive achievement and behavior,” said Anna Aizer, an associate professor of economics and public policy at Brown University. “These children will grow up to earn less in adulthood.”

Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute estimates that a loss of one IQ point from lead poisoning may lead to a loss of more than $22,000 in lifetime earnings (adjusting for inflation). Now consider that 14 percent of the children poisoned in Flint, Michigan, had very high blood lead levels—above 10 micrograms, which works out to a lifetime loss of at least $162,800 in earnings per child. It is medically impossible to reverse the damage done to the nervous systems of these children. But it is very possible to compensate them for unnecessary harm.

Improving the financial health of Black Americans is critical for improving their mental and physical health

Cash is certainly not an on-off switch to fix racial health disparities (especially maternal mortality, which affects every socioeconomic class of Black women), nor can any amount of money make right the loss of so many lives. Yet, there is evidence that cash reparations would not only be a just form of repayment, but a massive evidence-based health intervention.

Public health scholars David Williams and Chiquita Collins have shown that improving the financial health of Black Americans is critical for improving their mental and physical health. When the racial economic gap was narrowed between 1968 and 1978, so too narrowed the racial health gap (this trend reversed with the widening economic gap in the 1980s).

Both Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren have endorsed H.R. 40. Cory Booker said he will introduce a companion bill in the Senate; Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Beto O’Rourke all said they would sign it if they become president. Some candidates support reparations but have crossed out the cash payment option: Pete Buttigieg said he isn’t in favor of direct cash transfers; neither is Bernie Sanders, who said we need a solution other than “just writing out a check.” While former Vice President Joe Biden has not endorsed H.R. 40, Kate Bedingfield, his Deputy Campaign Manager and Communications Director, said Biden “believes that we should gather the data necessary to have an informed conversation about reparations, but he has not endorsed a specific bill.”

The healthcare case for reparations is about, as Kamala Harris argues, “the effects of generations of discrimination and institutional racism” on public health outcomes. (Harris has suggested reparations in the form of trauma treatment and mental healthcare, though she stopped short of endorsing cash payments to families.)

And reparations is also not about taking something away from white people to pay Black people. “Slavery was a federal and state institution,” explained Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the sponsor of H.R. 40. “I am not going to ask my neighbor who may happen to be white for a check. I am not interested in a check from individuals. I am interested in institutions who created the framework for this elongated period of slavery.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his case for reparations, argued that “special measures for the deprived have always been accepted in principle,” and suggested an analogy to the G.I. Bill of Rights for Black people and others who have been disadvantaged—one that would compensate with advantages in school, loans, jobs, and, yes, a check.

Such has been the approach to reparations in Chicago, where, in 2015, the city council voted to give $5.5 million to survivors of police torture, along with health services, job training and placement, college tuition, small business assistance, a permanent memorial, and a class on reparations to eighth-through-tenth grade students.

“No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries,” King wrote. But however you calculate it, a price can be placed on health disparities—and paid with interest.


“(Weathering) the stress on black women’s bodies from a lifetime of racism and abuse” Rebecca Schoenkopf

“Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, coined the term “weathering” for stress-induced wear and tear on the body. Weathering “causes a lot of different health vulnerabilities and increases susceptibility to infection,” she said, “but also early onset of chronic diseases, in particular, hypertension and diabetes” — conditions that disproportionately affect blacks at much younger ages than whites.” Nina Martin

Wonkette: We Broke Erica Garner’s Heart

“Researchers call the stress on black women’s bodies from a lifetime of racism and abuse “weathering.” It affects poor women, middle-class women, the educated, the successful, the lieutenant colonels in the US Public Health Service. The same risks in pregnancy a white woman might have in her 40s start in a black woman’s 30s, according to ProPublica, compounded by biases health-care providers may not even realize they have. Black women don’t get proper pain medication; they aren’t believed when they say something’s “not right.” When they die, they leave babies behind to be raised by bereft fathers and grandmothers. Shalon Irving’s grieving mother will raise her daughter beautifully, but she will still, presumably, live in the United States of America.”

NPR: Black Mothers Keep Dying After Giving Birth. Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why

Black expectant and new mothers frequently said that doctors and nurses didn’t take their pain seriously — a phenomenon borne out by numerous studies that show pain is often undertreated in black patients for conditions from appendicitis to cancer. When Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement who has become an activist to improve black maternal care, had an emergency C-section in Los Angeles in March 2016, the surgeon “never explained what he was doing to me,” she said. The pain medication didn’t work: “My mother basically had to scream at the doctors to give me the proper pain meds.”

But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.

“It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it. It’s everywhere; it’s in the air; it’s just affecting everything,” said Fleda Mask Jackson, an Atlanta researcher who focuses on birth outcomes for middle-class black women.

It’s a type of stress for which education and class provide no protection. “When you interview these doctors and lawyers and business executives, when you interview African-American college graduates, it’s not like their lives have been a walk in the park,” said Michael Lu, a longtime disparities researcher and former head of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration, the main federal agency funding programs for mothers and infants. “It’s the experience of having to work harder than anybody else just to get equal pay and equal respect. It’s being followed around when you’re shopping at a nice store, or being stopped by the police when you’re driving in a nice neighborhood.”

An expanding field of research shows that the stress of being a black woman in American society can take a physical toll during pregnancy and childbirth.
Chronic stress “puts the body into overdrive,” Lu said. “It’s the same idea as if you keep gunning the engine, that sooner or later you’re going to wear out the engine.”

NY Times: Why doesn’t the nited tates have universal health care? he answer has everything to do with race.

The smallpox virus hopscotched across the post-Civil War South, invading the makeshift camps where many thousands of newly freed African-Americans had taken refuge but leaving surrounding white communities comparatively unscathed. This pattern of affliction was no mystery: In the late 1860s, doctors had yet to discover viruses, but they knew that poor nutrition made people more susceptible to illness and that poor sanitation contributed to the spread of disease. They also knew that quarantine and vaccination could stop an outbreak in its tracks; they had used those very tools to prevent a smallpox outbreak from ravaging the Union Army.

Smallpox was not the only health disparity facing the newly emancipated, who at the close of the Civil War faced a considerably higher mortality rate than that of whites. Despite their urgent pleas for assistance, white leaders were deeply ambivalent about intervening. They worried about black epidemics spilling into their own communities and wanted the formerly enslaved to be healthy enough to return to plantation work. But they also feared that free and healthy African-Americans would upend the racial hierarchy, the historian Jim Downs writes in his 2012 book, “Sick From Freedom.”

Federal policy, he notes, reflected white ambivalence at every turn. Congress established the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau — the nation’s first federal health care program — to address the health crisis, but officials deployed just 120 or so doctors across the war-torn South, then ignored those doctors’ pleas for personnel and equipment. They erected more than 40 hospitals but prematurely shuttered most of them.

White legislators argued that free assistance of any kind would breed dependence and that when it came to black infirmity, hard labor was a better salve than white medicine. As the death toll rose, they developed a new theory: Blacks were so ill suited to freedom that the entire race was going extinct. “No charitable black scheme can wash out the color of the Negro, change his inferior nature or save him from his inevitable fate,” an Ohio congressman said.

One of the most eloquent rejoinders to the theory of black extinction came from Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the nation’s first black female doctor. Crumpler was born free and trained and practiced in Boston. At the close of the war, she joined the Freedmen’s Bureau and worked in the freed people’s communities of Virginia. In 1883, she published one of the first treatises on the burden of disease in black communities. “They seem to forget there is a cause for every ailment,” she wrote. “And that it may be in their power to remove it.”

In the decades following Reconstruction, the former slave states came to wield enormous congressional power through a voting bloc that was uniformly segregationist and overwhelmingly Democratic. That bloc preserved the nation’s racial stratification by securing local control of federal programs under a mantra of “states’ rights” and, in some cases, by adding qualifications directly to federal laws with discriminatory intent.

As the Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson and others have documented, it was largely at the behest of Southern Democrats that farm and domestic workers — more than half the nation’s black work force at the time — were excluded from New Deal policies, including the Social Security and Wagner Acts of 1935 (the Wagner Act ensured the right of workers to collective bargaining), and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a minimum wage and established the eight-hour workday. The same voting bloc ensured states controlled crucial programs like Aid to Dependent Children and the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill, allowing state leaders to effectively exclude black people.

In 1945, when President Truman called on Congress to expand the nation’s hospital system as part of a larger health care plan, Southern Democrats obtained key concessions that shaped the American medical landscape for decades to come. The Hill-Burton Act provided federal grants for hospital construction to communities in need, giving funding priority to rural areas (many of them in the South). But it also ensured that states controlled the disbursement of funds and could segregate resulting facilities.

Professional societies like the American Medical Association barred black doctors; medical schools excluded black students, and most hospitals and health clinics segregated black patients. Federal health care policy was designed, both implicitly and explicitly, to exclude black Americans. As a result, they faced an array of inequities — including statistically shorter, sicker lives than their white counterparts. What’s more, access to good medical care was predicated on a system of employer-based insurance that was inherently difficult for black Americans to get. “They were denied most of the jobs that offered coverage,” says David Barton Smith, an emeritus historian of health care policy at Temple University. “And even when some of them got health insurance, as the Pullman porters did, they couldn’t make use of white facilities.”

In the shadows of this exclusion, black communities created their own health systems. Lay black women began a national community health care movement that included fund-raising for black health facilities; campaigns to educate black communities about nutrition, sanitation and disease prevention; and programs like National Negro Health Week that drew national attention to racial health disparities. Black doctors and nurses — most of them trained at one of two black medical colleges, Meharry and Howard — established their own professional organizations and began a concerted war against medical apartheid. By the 1950s, they were pushing for a federal health care system for all citizens.

That fight put the National Medical Association (the leading black medical society) into direct conflict with the A.M.A., which was opposed to any nationalized health plan. In the late 1930s and the 1940s, the group helped defeat two such proposals with a vitriolic campaign that informs present-day debates: They called the idea socialist and un-American and warned of government intervention in the doctor-patient relationship. The group used the same arguments in the mid-’60s, when proponents of national health insurance introduced Medicare. This time, the N.M.A. developed a countermessage: Health care was a basic human right.

Medicare and Medicaid were part of a broader plan that finally brought the legal segregation of hospitals to an end: The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation for any entity receiving federal funds, and the new health care programs soon placed every hospital in the country in that category. But they still excluded millions of Americans. Those who did not fit into specific age, employment or income groups had little to no access to health care.

In 2010, the Affordable Care Act brought health insurance to nearly 20 million previously uninsured adults. The biggest beneficiaries of this boon were people of color, many of whom obtained coverage through the law’s Medicaid expansion. That coverage contributed to a measurable decrease in some racial health disparities, but the success was neither as enduring nor as widespread as it might have been. Several states, most of them in the former Confederacy, refused to participate in Medicaid expansion. And several are still trying to make access to the program contingent on onerous new work requirements. The results of both policies have been unequivocal. States that expanded Medicaid saw a drop in disease-related deaths, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. But in Arkansas, the first state to implement work requirements, nearly 20,000 people were forced off the insurance plan.

One hundred and fifty years after the freed people of the South first petitioned the government for basic medical care, the United States remains the only high-income country in the world where such care is not guaranteed to every citizen. In the United States, racial health disparities have proved as foundational as democracy itself. “There has never been any period in American history where the health of blacks was equal to that of whites,” Evelynn Hammonds, a historian of science at Harvard University, says. “Disparity is built into the system.” Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act have helped shrink those disparities. But no federal health policy yet has eradicated them.

NY Times: Myths about physical racial differences were used to justify slavery — and are still believed by doctors today.

The excruciatingly painful medical experiments went on until his body was disfigured by a network of scars. John Brown, an enslaved man on a Baldwin County, Ga., plantation in the 1820s and ’30s, was lent to a physician, Dr. Thomas Hamilton, who was obsessed with proving that physiological differences between black and white people existed. Hamilton used Brown to try to determine how deep black skin went, believing it was thicker than white skin. Brown, who eventually escaped to England, recorded his experiences in an autobiography, published in 1855 as “Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England.” In Brown’s words, Hamilton applied “blisters to my hands, legs and feet, which bear the scars to this day. He continued until he drew up the dark skin from between the upper and the under one. He used to blister me at intervals of about two weeks.” This went on for nine months, Brown wrote, until “the Doctor’s experiments had so reduced me that I was useless in the field.”

Hamilton was a courtly Southern gentleman, a respected physician and a trustee of the Medical Academy of Georgia. And like many other doctors of the era in the South, he was also a wealthy plantation owner who tried to use science to prove that differences between black people and white people went beyond culture and were more than skin deep, insisting that black bodies were composed and functioned differently than white bodies. They believed that black people had large sex organs and small skulls — which translated to promiscuity and a lack of intelligence — and higher tolerance for heat, as well as immunity to some illnesses and susceptibility to others. These fallacies, presented as fact and legitimized in medical journals, bolstered society’s view that enslaved people were fit for little outside forced labor and provided support for racist ideology and discriminatory public policies.

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative. Read all the stories.

Over the centuries, the two most persistent physiological myths — that black people were impervious to pain and had weak lungs that could be strengthened through hard work — wormed their way into scientific consensus, and they remain rooted in modern-day medical education and practice. In the 1787 manual “A Treatise on Tropical Diseases; and on The Climate of the West-Indies,” a British doctor, Benjamin Moseley, claimed that black people could bear surgical operations much more than white people, noting that “what would be the cause of insupportable pain to a white man, a Negro would almost disregard.” To drive home his point, he added, “I have amputated the legs of many Negroes who have held the upper part of the limb themselves.”

These misconceptions about pain tolerance, seized upon by pro-slavery advocates, also allowed the physician J. Marion Sims — long celebrated as the father of modern gynecology — to use black women as subjects in experiments that would be unconscionable today, practicing painful operations (at a time before anesthesia was in use) on enslaved women in Montgomery, Ala., between 1845 and 1849. In his autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” Sims described the agony the women suffered as he cut their genitals again and again in an attempt to perfect a surgical technique to repair vesico-vaginal fistula, which can be an extreme complication of childbirth.

Thomas Jefferson, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published around the same time as Moseley’s treatise, listed what he proposed were “the real distinctions which nature has made,” including a lack of lung capacity. In the years that followed, physicians and scientists embraced Jefferson’s unproven theories, none more aggressively than Samuel Cartwright, a physician and professor of “diseases of the Negro” at the University of Louisiana, now Tulane University. His widely circulated paper, “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” published in the May 1851 issue of The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, cataloged supposed physical differences between whites and blacks, including the claim that black people had lower lung capacity. Cartwright, conveniently, saw forced labor as a way to “vitalize” the blood and correct the problem. Most outrageous, Cartwright maintained that enslaved people were prone to a “disease of the mind” called drapetomania, which caused them to run away from their enslavers. Willfully ignoring the inhumane conditions that drove desperate men and women to attempt escape, he insisted, without irony, that enslaved people contracted this ailment when their enslavers treated them as equals, and he prescribed “whipping the devil out of them” as a preventive measure.

Today Cartwright’s 1851 paper reads like satire, Hamilton’s supposedly scientific experiments appear simply sadistic and, last year, a statue commemorating Sims in New York’s Central Park was removed after prolonged protest that included women wearing blood-splattered gowns in memory of Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and the other enslaved women he brutalized. And yet, more than 150 years after the end of slavery, fallacies of black immunity to pain and weakened lung function continue to show up in modern-day medical education and philosophy.

[Why doesn’t America have universal health care? The answer has everything to do with race.]

Even Cartwright’s footprint remains embedded in current medical practice. To validate his theory about lung inferiority in African-Americans, he became one of the first doctors in the United States to measure pulmonary function with an instrument called a spirometer. Using a device he designed himself, Cartwright calculated that “the deficiency in the Negro may be safely estimated at 20 percent.” Today most commercially available spirometers, used around the world to diagnose and monitor respiratory illness, have a “race correction” built into the software, which controls for the assumption that blacks have less lung capacity than whites. In her 2014 book, “Breathing Race Into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics,” Lundy Braun, a Brown University professor of medical science and Africana studies, notes that “race correction” is still taught to medical students and described in textbooks as scientific fact and standard practice.

A 19th-century spirometer, used to measure the vital capacity of the lungs. Getty Images

Recent data also shows that present-day doctors fail to sufficiently treat the pain of black adults and children for many medical issues. A 2013 review of studies examining racial disparities in pain management published in The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics found that black and Hispanic people — from children who needed adenoidectomies or tonsillectomies to elders in hospice care — received inadequate pain management compared with white counterparts.

A 2016 survey of 222 white medical students and residents published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s. When asked to imagine how much pain white or black patients experienced in hypothetical situations, the medical students and residents insisted that black people felt less pain. This made the providers less likely to recommend appropriate treatment. A third of these doctors to be also still believed the lie that Thomas Hamilton tortured John Brown to prove nearly two centuries ago: that black skin is thicker than white skin.

[To get updates on The 1619 Project, and for more on race from The New York Times, sign up for our weekly Race/Related newsletter.]

This disconnect allows scientists, doctors and other medical providers — and those training to fill their positions in the future — to ignore their own complicity in health care inequality and gloss over the internalized racism and both conscious and unconscious bias that drive them to go against their very oath to do no harm.

The centuries-old belief in racial differences in physiology has continued to mask the brutal effects of discrimination and structural inequities, instead placing blame on individuals and their communities for statistically poor health outcomes. Rather than conceptualizing race as a risk factor that predicts disease or disability because of a fixed susceptibility conceived on shaky grounds centuries ago, we would do better to understand race as a proxy for bias, disadvantage and ill treatment. The poor health outcomes of black people, the targets of discrimination over hundreds of years and numerous generations, may be a harbinger for the future health of an increasingly diverse and unequal America.

Face to Face:  The disturbing history of enslaved mothers forced to breastfeed white babies in the 1600s

Slave trade brought many advantages to western societies. The main duty of a slave was to work on plantations increasing productivity. Slaves often worked long tedious hours in the sun with no pay or reward for their hard labour. Their presence made traders and plantation owners more productive and made their living conditions very harsh.

After a while, the duties of slaves extended to domestic work and female slaves became of high value. In addition to their plantation duties, many female slaves were taken into the homes of their masters to serve their mistresses, cook, clean and wash for them. If a mistress had too many children, the domestic worker was made to help in caring for the child. After a while, female slaves were made to take the place of low-class women paid to breastfeed babies, a practice known as wet nursing.

By the 17th century, wet nursing by slaves had become very popular in Europe. The practice soon reached America through British settlers.

The practice was an excuse for many white mothers to avoid breastfeeding with hopes of maintaining their stature and avoiding the “messy” part of motherhood. The act was perceived as a self-demeaning and women who were seen breastfeeding were often thought of as uncultured, poor and often shunned. The practice became very popular when doctors of the time did all they could to prove that breastfeeding was an unhealthy act for women. It is believed that doctors were paid huge sums of money to write such reports.

The children of slaves grew healthy while many white families lost their children to ill health. This made many westerners force slave mothers to breastfeed their white children so that they could develop better and survive the early months of childhood.

By the 18th century, the trend had become very popular.

Once a slave mother had a child, she was quickly assigned to a white mistress and forced to breastfeed her white baby instead of her own.

Young and healthy slave women were also forced to breastfeed white babies after doctors discovered that the continuous sucking of a sexually active female breast could result in lactation.

While they breastfed white babies at the expense of theirs, slave mothers tried to keep their children alive by feeding them with concoctions they believed will be good substitutes for milk. They also gave cow milk and dirty water which were not suitable for babies health. This resulted in high deaths of babies of slaved throughout the slave trade.

At the peak of the forced wet nursing, slave traders often kidnapped newborn babies from their slave mothers. The pain in the breasts left these women with no choice but to breastfeed other babies who were often white. Some reluctant slaves were beaten and often milked like cows to feed white babies.

Slave mothers often kept the white babies in their homes until the child’s family felt it was time to take them back. Since the living conditions of the slaves were not the best, several white babies died. Speculating that slave mothers were killing the babies out of spite, they were later forced to move in with the family where they could be monitored.

The enslaved wet nurses were rejected by their husbands especially after the death of their own child. Another consequence of the practice was slave masters and their sons having affairs with slave women resulting into increased births of mixed race babies.

The practice started to die down after slaves were slowly getting their freedom. Most of the wet nurses were saved by their families or lovers who bought their freedom for them.

A few African-American women continued wet nursing after slavery had been abolished. Though they were discouraged continuously, they did the job in secret and earned more than self-employed freed slaves and butlers. They were often called prostitutes or shameless women.

Wet nursing existed for many centuries dating as far back as the biblical days. However, in history, only slave mothers were forced into the act.

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Source: empoweredbirthproject

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Black Breastfeeding Week was created because for over 40 years there has been a gaping racial disparity in breastfeeding rates. The most recent CDC data show that 75% of white women have ever breastfed versus 58.9% of black women.

Breastfeeding is known to have many health benefits for infants and mothers. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. But only about 64 percent of Black mothers initiate breastfeeding and at 6.4 weeks they have the shortest breastfeeding duration of all races in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This CDC study shows that the lack of support for black mothers begins at the hospital, leading to the “gap in breastfeeding initiation between black and white infants of 17.2 percentage points”

Contained Bodies, Confined Milk and the Politics of Black Breasts

The racial disparity in reaping the benefits of breastfeeding is due to the intergenerational experience and support. It stems from the legacy of enslaved Black mothers neglecting their children to nurse white babies.

Perhaps I should be sharing my story here. It is Black Breastfeeding Week after all and I’m Black, I have breasts, and milk flowed from them in spite of the challenges of pregnancy, childbirth and chronic illness, for five years and change. My challenges were met with multigenerational support and I leaned on memories of how breastfeeding was modeled for me as a child. I attended support group meetings during the day. I returned to work but I missed my baby and hated pumping, so I left and never came back. I stayed home with that baby, ate good food, made cream-top milk, and one more baby. It all came easy to me, even in the face of minor challenges.  My body a living example of the multidimensional interaction of privilege and breastfeeding. And I know I’m not the norm. So, I don’t deserve to take up the only space here.

You see, before having my first baby, I worked in childcare subsidy, research, and advocacy.  Paperwork passed over my desk with heartfelt requests from mothers wishing to return to work just days after cesarean births with physicians releasing them to work faster than their milk could come down. Double takes at case files with work schedules that exhausted me just looking at them and I found myself wondering “didn’t she just have a baby?” Mothers leaving their babies at home for night shifts to care for other people and even other people’s babies.

Black breasts do not exist separate from Black bodies and the situated existence we navigate in this world nor the racialized experience of motherhood

— Ashley May

Black breasts do not exist separate from Black bodies and the situated existence we navigate in this world nor the racialized experience of motherhood. Racism and classism intertwine to act as a containment, working to make some of us feel as if we are walking in quicksand. Add to this the complexities of new motherhood and the needs of the postpartum body and now we have a cocktail for failure. Literal milk plugs. So, although her precious body may be able to produce milk, her situation prevents her and her baby from receiving it. Even the intention to breastfeed cannot save the milk of the mother who cannot find time for pump breaks as she works the night shift as a security guard. Or, perhaps she cannot figure out why pumping is not working, but she doesn’t have the time to seek the educational or financial resources to help her problem solve.

And it wasn’t until I became a mother that I could truly see them. You know that maternal empathy that only kicks in when you have a baby, finally engulfing you with the joy and pain of other mothers. Well at least that’s what happened with me. So, the memory of these mothers lingers in my heart. It has caused me to resist engaging with imagery of a sort of Black breastfeeding that comes with ease and lean into the stories of women who want so badly to breastfeed their babies but face socioeconomic blocks due to lack of support, resources, and empowerment.

Essential to the solution is the acknowledgement that breastfeeding is a privilege, not a right.  To paint the picture that breastfeeding should come easy, as long as you’re lactating and of course doing everything right, is a disservice to the many black women that face socioeconomic constraints that prevent them and their babies from accessing life giving milk.  Many black women simply do not have the luxury. Luxury comes with privilege. A type of privilege held by white women and to a certain extent Black women, like myself, who faced little to no challenges while nursing their babies. So, today I’m creating a loving space for the women who despite their loving intention to feed their babies were met with road blocks that changed their paths.  I’m stepping down in order to lift them up and letting them know that in spite of everything, you loved that baby and gave the best you had while navigating circumstances no one should have to. And for that reason alone, you are a queen.



Racial Health Disparities

“White lives matter to the tune of 3.5 addition over Black lives in the United States, which is just the most glaring of a host of health disparities, starting from infancy, where Black infants die at twice the rate of White infants. But at les my grandmothers and I met, we shared, we loved. I never met me paternal grandfather. I never met my maternal grandfather, Alvin killed by cancer three years before my birth. In the United States African Americans are 25 percent more likely to die of cancer than Whites. My father survived prostate cancer, which kills twice as many Black men as it does White men. Breast cancer disproportionately kills Black women.

Three million African Americans and four million Latinx secured health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, dropping uninsured rates for both groups to around 11 percent before President Barack Obama left office. But a staggering 28.5 million Americans remained uninsured, a number primed for growth after Congress repealed the individual mandate in 2017. And it is becoming harder for people of color to vote out of office the politicians crafting these policies designed to shorten their lives. Racist voting policy has evolved from disenfranchising by Jim Crow voting laws to disenfranchising by mass incarceration and voter-ID laws. Sometimes these efforts are so blatant that they are struck down: North Carolina enacted one of these targeted voterI D laws, but in July 2016 the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck it down, ruling that its various provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” But others have remained and been successful. Wisconsin’s strict voter-ID law suppressed approximately two hundred thousand votes —again primarily targeting voters of color–in the 2016 election. Donald Trump won that critical swing state by 22,748 votes.”  Ibram Kendi, How to be an Antiracist

  • A 2012 study found that Black Americans report “experiencing discrimination at significantly higher rates” than other racial or ethnic groups, leading to PTSD-like symptoms – not from war, but from living in the United States.
  • According to the CDC, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health.

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    • A black woman is:
      • 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman
      • 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer
      • 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.
    • In a national study of five medical complications that are common causes of maternal death and injury, black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women who had the same condition.
    • In New York City, for example, black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers, according to the most recent data; in 2001-2005, their risk of death was seven times higher. Researchers say that widening gap reflects a dramatic improvement for white women but not for blacks.
    • The disproportionate toll on African-Americans is the main reason the U.S. maternal mortality rate is so much higher than that of other affluent countries. Black expectant and new mothers in the U.S. die at about the same rate as women in countries such as Mexico and Uzbekistan, the World Health Organization estimates.
    • A 2016 analysis of five years of data found that black, college-educated mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school.
    • For much of American history, these types of disparities were largely blamed on blacks’ supposed susceptibility to illness — their “mass of imperfections,” as one doctor wrote in 1903 — and their own behavior. But now many social scientists and medical researchers agree, the problem isn’t race but racism.
      • There was the new mother in Nebraska with a history of hypertension who couldn’t get her doctors to believe she was having a heart attack until she had another one. The young Florida mother-to-be whose breathing problems were blamed on obesity when in fact her lungs were filling with fluid and her heart was failing. The Arizona mother whose anesthesiologist assumed she smoked marijuana because of the way she did her hair. The Chicago-area businesswoman with a high-risk pregnancy who was so upset at her doctor’s attitude that she changed OB/GYNs in her seventh month, only to suffer a fatal postpartum stroke.
      • The systemic problems start with types of social inequities that include differing access to healthy food and safe drinking water, safe neighborhoods and good schools, decent jobs and reliable transportation.
      • Black women are more likely to be uninsured outside of pregnancy, when Medicaid kicks in, and thus more likely to start prenatal care later and to lose coverage in the postpartum period. They are more likely to have chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension that make having a baby more dangerous. The hospitals where they give birth are often the products of historical segregation, lower in quality than those where white mothers deliver, with significantly higher rates of life-threatening complications.
      • Those problems are amplified by unconscious biases that are embedded in the medical system, affecting quality of care in stark and subtle ways. In the more than 200 stories of African-American mothers that ProPublica and NPR have collected over the past year, the feeling of being devalued and disrespected by medical providers was a constant theme.
      • In a survey conducted this year by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 33 percent of black women said that they personally had been discriminated against because of their race when going to a doctor or health clinic, and 21 percent said they have avoided going to a doctor or seeking health care out of concern they would be racially discriminated against.
    • An expanding field of research shows that the stress of being a black woman in American society can take a physical toll during pregnancy and childbirth.


NPR: Black Mothers Keep Dying After Giving Birth. Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why
ProPublica: Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth
Everyday Feminism: Here’s Your Proof That White Americans Don’t Face Systemic Racism

50 years after the Kerner Commission

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1960s Urban Rebellions and the Kerner Commission

  • 1964-71: urban rebellions (not riots) broke out in many cities
    • Approximately 700 civil disturbances occurred in predominantly black areas
    • Major rebellions: Harlem, Rochester, Philadelphia (1964), Watts (1965), Hough (1966) Newark, Detroit, Plainfield (1967), Chicago, DC, Balitmore, and over 100 other cities after MLK jr assassination (1968)
    • Generally riots erupted after a minority person was killed or injured unjustly
  • 1967: President Johnson formed Kerner Commission
    • To research causes and solutions to riots
  • 1968: Kerner report released concluded
    • The nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
    • The country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities
    • Indictment of “white society” for isolating and neglecting African Americans
    • Urged legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums
      • Primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing
  • President Johnson rejected the recommendations
    • Instead launched the War on Crime

The Kerner Report: Differences between 1968 and 2016

  • Education
    • Black people today are much better educated than they were in 1968
      • But still lag behind whites in overall educational attainment.
        • More than 90% of younger African Americans (ages 25 to 29) have graduated from high school
          • compared with just over half in 1968
        • Black people are more than 2x as likely to have a college degree as in 1968
          • but are still half as likely as young whites to have a college degree
  • Improvements in education has resulted in
    • Improvements in wages, incomes, wealth, health for black people since 1968
    • BUT
      • Black workers still make only 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by white workers
      • African Americans are 2.5x as likely to be in poverty as whites
      • The median white family has almost 10x as much wealth as the median black family
  • Areas that failed to deliver any progress since 1968
    • Homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration
      • In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5%, up from 6.7% in 1968
        • still roughly 2x the white unemployment rate.
      • In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40%
        • virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate
      • Percentage of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968-2016
        • currently more than 6x the white incarceration rate

According to History Matters:

“President Lyndon Johnson formed an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 to explain the riots that plagued cities each summer since 1964 and to provide recommendations for the future. The Commission’s 1968 report, informally known as the Kerner Report, concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Unless conditions were remedied, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities. The Kerner report delivered an indictment of “white society” for isolating and neglecting African Americans and urged legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing. President Johnson, however, rejected the recommendations.  In April 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1998, 30 years after the issuance of the Report, former Senator and Commission member Fred R. Harris co-authored a study that found the racial divide had grown in the ensuing years with inner-city unemployment at crisis levels…

…Although specific grievances varied from city to city, at least 12 deeply held grievances can be identified and ranked into three levels of relative intensity:

First Level of Intensity

1. Police practices

2. Unemployment and underemployment

3. Inadequate housing

Second Level of Intensity

4. Inadequate education

5. Poor recreation facilities and programs

6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms.

Third Level of Intensity

7. Disrespectful white attitudes

8. Discriminatory administration of justice

9. Inadequacy of federal programs

10. Inadequacy of municipal services

11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices

12. Inadequate welfare programs

The results of a three-city survey of various federal programs—manpower, education, housing, welfare and community action—indicate that, despite substantial expenditures, the number of persons assisted constituted only a fraction of those in need. The background of disorder is often as complex and difficult to analyze as the disorder itself. But we find that certain general conclusions can be drawn:

Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it. Negroes had completed fewer years of education and fewer had attended high school. Negroes were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to be in unskilled and service jobs. Negroes averaged 70 percent of the income earned by whites and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. Although housing cost Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing—three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard. When compared to white suburbs, the relative disadvantage is even more pronounced.

A study of the aftermath of disorder leads to disturbing conclusions. We find that, despite the institution of some post-riot programs: Little basic change in the conditions underlying the outbreak of disorder has taken place. Actions to ameliorate Negro grievances have been limited and sporadic; with but few exceptions, they have not significantly reduced tensions.

In several cities, the principal official response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons. In several cities, increasing polarization is evident, with continuing breakdown of inter-racial communication, and growth of white segregationist or black separatist groups…

…In addressing the question “Why did it happen?” we shift our focus from the local to the national scene, from the particular events of the summer of 1967 to the factors within the society at large that created a mood of violence among many urban Negroes. These factors are complex and interacting; they vary significantly in their effect from city to city and from year to year; and the consequences of one disorder, generating new grievances and new demands, become the causes of the next. Thus was created the “thicket of tension, conflicting evidence and extreme opinions” cited by the President.

Despite these complexities, certain fundamental matters are clear. Of these, the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans. Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. Among the ingredients of this mixture are:

Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.

Black in-migration and white exodus, which have produced the massive and growing concentrations of impoverished Negroes in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs.

The black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure. Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result.

At the same time, most whites and some Negroes outside the ghetto have prospered to a degree unparalleled in the history of civilization. Through television and other media, this affluence has been flaunted before the eyes of the Negro poor and the jobless ghetto youth. Yet these facts alone cannot be said to have caused the disorders. Recently, other powerful ingredients have begun to catalyze the mixture:

Frustrated hopes are the residue of the unfulfilled expectations aroused by the great judicial and legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the dramatic struggle for equal rights in the South.

A climate that tends toward approval and encouragement of violence as a form of protest has been created by white terrorism directed against nonviolent protest; by the open defiance of law and federal authority by state and local officials resisting desegregation; and by some protest groups engaging in civil disobedience who turn their backs on nonviolence, go beyond the constitutionally protected rights of petition and free assembly, and resort to violence to attempt to compel alteration of laws and policies with which they disagree.

The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of “moving the system.” These frustrations are reflected in alienation and hostility toward the institutions of law and government and the white society which controls them, and in the reach toward racial consciousness and solidarity reflected in the slogan “Black Power.”

A new mood has sprung up among Negroes, particularly among the young, in which self-esteem and enhanced racial pride are replacing apathy and submission to “the system.”

The police are not merely a “spark” factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites.

To this point, we have attempted to identify the prime components of the “explosive mixture.” In the chapters that follow we seek to analyze them in the perspective of history. Their meaning, however, is clear: In the summer of 1967, we have seen in our cities a chain reaction of racial violence. If we are heedless, none of us shall escape the consequences.”

Economic Policy Institute: 50 years after the Kerner Commission African Americans are better off in many ways but are still disadvantaged by racial inequality

“The year 1968 was a watershed in American history and black America’s ongoing fight for equality. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and riots broke out in cities around the country. Rising against this tragedy, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawing housing discrimination was signed into law. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute as they received their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open singles title, and Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives.

The same year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, delivered a report to President Johnson examining the causes of civil unrest in African American communities. The report named “white racism”—leading to “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing”—as the culprit, and the report’s authors called for a commitment to “the realization of common opportunities for all within a single [racially undivided] society.”1 The Kerner Commission report pulled together a comprehensive array of data to assess the specific economic and social inequities confronting African Americans in 1968.

Where do we stand as a society today? In this brief report, we compare the state of black workers and their families in 1968 with the circumstances of their descendants today, 50 years after the Kerner report was released. We find both good news and bad news. While African Americans are in many ways better off in absolute terms than they were in 1968, they are still disadvantaged in important ways relative to whites. In several important respects, African Americans have actually lost ground relative to whites, and, in a few cases, even relative to African Americans in 1968.

Following are some of the key findings:

  • African Americans today are much better educated than they were in 1968 but still lag behind whites in overall educational attainment. More than 90 percent of younger African Americans (ages 25 to 29) have graduated from high school, compared with just over half in 1968—which means they’ve nearly closed the gap with white high school graduation rates. They are also more than twice as likely to have a college degree as in 1968 but are still half as likely as young whites to have a college degree.
  • The substantial progress in educational attainment of African Americans has been accompanied by significant absolute improvements in wages, incomes, wealth, and health since 1968. But black workers still make only 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by white workers, African Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as whites, and the median white family has almost 10 times as much wealth as the median black family.
  • With respect to homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration, America has failed to deliver any progress for African Americans over the last five decades. In these areas, their situation has either failed to improve relative to whites or has worsened. In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is currently more than six times the white incarceration rate.

Educational attainment

The most important development since 1968 is that African Americans today are much better educated than they were in 1968. These absolute improvements in educational attainment—including substantial increases in both high school and college completion rates—have opened important doors for black workers compared with their counterparts 50 years ago. In relative terms, African Americans today are almost as likely as whites to have completed high school. But even though the share of younger African Americans with a college degree has more than doubled, African Americans today are still only about half as likely to have a college degree as whites of the same age.

High school graduation rates

Over the last five decades, African Americans have seen substantial gains in high school completion rates. In 1968, just over half (54.4 percent) of 25- to 29-year-old African Americans had a high school diploma. Today, more than nine out of 10 African Americans (92.3 percent) in the same age range had a high school diploma. (See Table 1 for all data presented in this report.)

The large increase in high school completion rates helped to close the gap relative to whites. In 1968, African Americans trailed whites by more than 20 percentage points (75.0 percent of whites had completed high school, compared with 54.4 percent of blacks). In the most recent data, the gap is just 3.3 percentage points (95.6 percent for whites versus 92.3 percent for African Americans).

College graduation rates

College graduation rates have also improved for African Americans. Among 25- to 29-year-olds, less than one in 10 (9.1 percent) had a college degree in 1968, a figure that has climbed to almost one in four (22.8 percent) today.

Over the same period, however, college completion expanded for whites at a similar pace, rising from 16.2 percent in 1968 to 42.1 percent today, leaving the relative situation of African Americans basically unchanged: in 1968 blacks were just over half (56.0 percent) as likely as whites to have a college degree, a situation that is essentially the same today (54.2 percent).2

We would expect that these kinds of increases in the absolute levels of formal education would translate into large improvements in economic and related outcomes for African Americans. The rest of our indicators test the validity of this assumption.


The unemployment rate for African Americans in 2017 (the last full year of data) was 7.5 percent, 0.8 percentage points higher than it was in 1968 (6.7 percent). The unemployment rate for whites was 3.8 percent in 2017 and 3.2 percent in 1968.3

The unemployment data for these two years, almost 50 years apart, demonstrate a longstanding and unfortunate economic regularity: the unemployment rate for black workers is consistently about twice as high as it is for white workers.

Wages and income

Hourly wages. The inflation-adjusted hourly wage of the typical black worker rose 30.5 percent between 1968 and 2016, or about 0.6 percent per year. This slow rate of growth is particularly disappointing given the large increase in educational attainment among African Americans over these decades.

Even slower real wage growth (about 0.2 percent per year) for the typical white worker—albeit starting from a higher initial wage—meant that African Americans did modestly close the racial wage gap over the last five decades. But, in 2016, by the hourly wage measure used here, the typical black worker still only made 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by the typical white worker.4

Household income. The inflation-adjusted annual income of the typical African American household increased 42.8 percent between 1968 and 2016, slightly outpacing income growth for the typical white household (36.7 percent). But the typical black household today still receives only 61.6 percent of the annual income received by the typical white household.5

Poverty rates. The share of African Americans living in poverty has declined substantially in the last five decades. Using the official federal poverty measure as a benchmark, over one-third (34.7 percent) of African Americans were in poverty in 1968. Today, the share in poverty is just over one in five (21.4 percent). For whites, the decline in the poverty rate was much smaller, from 10.0 percent in 1968 to 8.8 percent in 2016. In the most recent data, African Americans are about 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as whites. (In 1968, they were 3.5 times as likely to be in poverty.)6

Family wealth

The typical black family had almost no wealth in 1968 ($2,467; data refer to 19637). Today, that figure is about six times larger ($17,409), but it is still not that far from zero when you consider that families typically draw on their wealth for larger expenses, such as meeting basic needs over the course of retirement, paying for their children’s college education, putting a down payment on a house, or coping with a job loss or medical crisis.

Over the same period, the wealth of the typical white family almost tripled, from a much higher initial level. In 2016, the median African American family had only 10.2 percent of the wealth of the median white family ($17,409 versus $171,000).8

Homeownership. One of the most important forms of wealth for working and middle-class families is home equity. Yet, the share of black households that owned their own home remained virtually unchanged between 1968 (41.1 percent) and today (41.2 percent). Over the same period, homeownership for white households increased 5.2 percentage points to 71.1 percent, about 30 percentage points higher than the ownership rate for black households.9


Infant mortality. Over the last five decades, African Americans have experienced enormous improvements in infant mortality rates. The number of deaths per 1,000 live births has fallen from 34.9 in 1968 to 11.4 in the most recent data. Over the same period, whites have also seen dramatic reductions in infant mortality, with rates falling from 18.8 to 4.9 by the same measure.

In relative terms, however, African Americans have fallen behind. In 1968, black infants were about 1.9 times as likely to die as white infants. Today, the rate is 2.3 times higher for African Americans.10

Life expectancy. African Americans’ life expectancy at birth has also increased substantially (up 11.5 years) between 1968 and today, outpacing the increase for whites (up 7.5 years). But an African American born today can, on average, still expect to live about 3.5 fewer years than a white person born on the same day.11


The share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 (604 of every 100,000 in the total population) and 2016 (1,730 per 100,000).

The share of whites in prison or jail has also increased dramatically, but from a much lower base. In 1968, about 111 of every 100,000 whites were incarcerated. In the most recent data, the share has increased to 270 per 100,000.

In 1968, African Americans were about 5.4 times as likely as whites to be in prison or jail. Today, African Americans are 6.4 times as likely as whites to be incarcerated, which is especially troubling given that whites are also much more likely to be incarcerated now than they were in 1968.

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