Forty Acres and a Mule: Or Why Pat Buchanan Should Shut His Mouth

When it comes to the “outrageous” remarks of the week, it usually takes me a while to get a handle on what all the fuss is about. (Update–the best commentary I’ve yet seen on the media reaction comes from Matt Taibbi.)  When the commentariat had their knickers in a twist back in the ’90s over Wayne LaPierre’s statements on guns and government tyranny, my reaction was, “Yeah, so?” It seemed pretty tame (not to mention self-evident) to me. And now, listening to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” sermon, my reaction is pretty much the same: “Yeah, so?”

I’d take issue with his tendency to conflate “America” with the American government, and to confuse the American host organism with the glorified tapeworms in Washington and Wall Street who make foreign policy and run the corporate economy. I’d quibble over his AIDS howler, when his completely factual reference to the Tuskegee experiment was plenty by itself. And frankly, I don’t think Bill Clinton has ever been an “intelligent friend” to anyone but Bill Clinton.

But on the whole, my reaction is pretty much the same as Mark Brady’s:

He’s good on government lies. And he’s good on the war question, Pearl Harbor, Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Afghanistan, Iraq. Yes, he does need to read Mises on the market economy. But, overall, he’s arguably better than Barack Obama. And certainly better than some who call themselves libertarian!

If anything, Wright’s Jeremiad (“Confusing God and Government“) would be a good corrective for the historical illiteracy of the Religious Right in America, who are unaware of just what a radical departure their “God’n’Country” religion is from the Judeo-Christian tradition. As fond as some of them are of quoting Romans Chapter 13, what Paul advocated there was basically the modern Quaker position of quietism toward the state: leave it alone so it will leave you alone. Somehow I doubt the first century Church held enthusiastic “God’n’Caesar” rallies every year to celebrate the Founding of the City, with waving SPQR banners and bas-reliefs of Romulus and the she-wolf, and mass loyalty oaths to Caesar (just what do you think the “Pledge of Allegiance” is, anyway?). And all the Focus on the Family schmucks have to do is crack open the Bible to the stories of Ahab and Jezebel, or Manasseh, to find prophets speaking truth to power and calling Israel/Judah to judgment in ways that make “God damn America” look tame indeed.

Predictably Pat Buchanan weighed in on the controversy, suggesting that Wright ought to stop his whining because the black community’s problems are mostly of its own making (via Orcinus):

Is it really white America’s fault that illegitimacy in the African-American community has hit 70 percent and the black dropout rate from high schools in some cities has reached 50 percent?

Is that the fault of white America or, first and foremost, a failure of the black community itself?

This has been a common theme on the Right since it was set forth by neoconservatives Marvin Olasky and Pat Moynihan. Newt Gingrich was a shill for it in the Nineties. It’s also an example of a recurring refrain in the vulgar libertarian hymnbook: poor people are that way because they deserve it.

But things aren’t quite that simple.

For starters, the social pathologies of the inner city don’t date (as the Gingrichoids claim) just to the Great Society. They actually got fully underway back in the 1950s. According to Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, in Regulating the Poor, the immediate cause of urban black social disintegration was the mass influx of poor southern blacks, sharecroppers who were tractored off their land after WWII.

The logical question to ask is not only why these sharecroppers were evicted, but how they came to be working someone else’s land in the first place.

By any reasonable standard of justice, the plantations should have been broken up after the Civil War and the land given to the freed slaves. I believe “forty acres and a mule” is the expression commonly used. But in fact that very seldom occurred.

When it did, though, it made a huge difference: a difference still reflected today in the comparative social and economic statistics of blacks whose ancestors got, or didn’t get, land of their own. For example, according to Melinda Miller (hat tip to Tyler Cowen), the Cherokee Nation (which practiced slavery and joined the Confederacy) was forced during reconstruction to “to allow its former slaves to claim and improve any unused land in the Nation’s public domain.” Miller found “smaller racial wealth and income gaps in the Cherokee Nation than in the South,” and “higher absolute levels of wealth and higher levels of income than southern freedmen.” These differences, she said, were substantial: the racial wealth gap differed by 46-75% for livestock, and 20-56% for crop income.

Henry Louis Gates (another hat tip to Freedom Democrats) found a similar, positive deviation in the economic success of present-day blacks who managed to acquire land (some of them under the Southern Homestead Act):

I have been studying the family trees of 20 successful African-Americans… And I’ve seen an astonishing pattern: 15 of the 20 descend from at least one line of former slaves who managed to obtain property by 1920 — a time when only 25 percent of all African-American families owned property….

If there is a meaningful correlation between the success of accomplished African-Americans today and their ancestors’ property ownership, we can only imagine how different black-white relations would be had “40 acres and a mule” really been official government policy in the Reconstruction South.

The historical basis for the gap between the black middle class and underclass shows that ending discrimination, by itself, would not eradicate black poverty and dysfunction.

This is the same thing, almost to the word, that individualist anarchists like Lysander Spooner (in Natural Law) had to say about the “freeing” of the serfs, and other easings of the feudal yoke on the peasantry of Europe (which also entailed, at the same time, “freeing” them from their rights in the land):

In process of time, the robber, or slaveholding, class—who had seized all the lands, and held all the means of creating wealth—began to discover that the easiest mode of managing their slaves, and making them profitable, was not for each slaveholder to hold his specified number of slaves, as he had done before, and as he would hold so many cattle, but to give them so much liberty as would throw upon themselves (the slaves) the responsibility of their own subsistence, and yet compel them to sell their labor to the land-holding class—their former owners—for just what the latter might choose to give them. Of course, these liberated slaves, as some have erroneously called them, having no lands, or other property, and no means of obtaining an independent subsistence, had no alternative—to save themselves from starvation—but to sell their labor to the landholders, in exchange only for the coarsest necessaries of life; not always for so much even as that.

These liberated slaves, as they were called, were now scarcely less slaves than they were before. Their means of subsistence were perhaps even more precarious than when each had his own owner, who had an interest to preserve his life. They were liable, at the caprice or interest of the landholders, to be thrown out of home, employment, and the opportunity of even earning a subsistence by their labor. They were, therefore, in large numbers, driven to the necessity of begging, stealing, or starving; and became, of course, dangerous to the property and quiet of their late masters.

The consequence was, that these late owners found it necessary, for their own safety and the safety of their property, to organize themselves more perfectly as a government and make laws for keeping these dangerous people in subjection; that is, laws fixing the prices at which they should be compelled to labor, and also prescribing fearful punishments, even death itself, for such thefts and tresspasses as they were driven to commit, as their only means of saving themselves from starvation.

The peasants of Britain, through the nullification of copyhold tenure, the Highland clearances, and the Enclosures, were “freed” from feudalism (and from their land) and transformed from a nation of peasant smallholders into a nation of propertyless proletarians, and then driven into the factories like cattle. They were driven by the shipload, as indentured servants or transported convicts, to America and Australia, where most of them died in servitude (the corporal punishment was severe, and the term of service could be extended indefinitely for the most minor offenses). The African slaves of America, with even crueller taskmasters and lacking even the customary rights of a tenant in copyhold, were “freed” to the propertyless existence of sharecroppers and urban lumpenproles.

The great landed oligarchs and mercantile capitalists of the rising West did to the entire planet the same thing that J.L. and Barbara Hammond described in England, in the context of the breakup of the open field system and mass expropriation of land: the world was “taken to pieces … and reconstructed in the manner in which a dictator reconstructs a free government.” Although the slaves had the worst of it, it was a pretty shitty “Four Hundred Years” for laboring people all around.

But the issue isn’t just limited to the acquisition of property after the Civil War; it’s still more complicated. Many of the freed slaves who did manage to acquire land of their own wound up getting it snatched out from under them. As Bitch, PhD writes:

At the turn of the century blacks owned between 12-15 million acres of land; by the 30s and 40s that number shrinks to just a little over a million. For many of these black families the land is a foundation to build their newly acquired identities as freed people that suddenly disappears, forcing their story to jump, only to be picked up further down the line. What happened? What happened in those intervening years? Did African Americans just suddenly decide, “Hm, you know, owning land sucks. Let’s pick up and go north”? Usually something else happened to make a family, or even a whole black town, disperse.

Tom Joyner’s family story is a good example; Gates finds his great grandmother but her paper trail ends somewhere in late 19th/turn of the century Carolinas, only to pick up again several years later in the north. Joyner has no idea why she left home or what the story of his family is but Gates and his team discover the reason: His family owned a substantial parcel of land but when his two great uncles are accused of murder and executed, the family sells their land to pay for legal fees and the remaining family flees the area. But Gates’ team also uncovers that the accusation was probably false, specifically targeted at the two great uncles because they were part of a black landowning family.

Chris Rock asks how his own ancestor could go from slave, to soldier, to legislator, to landowner, to sharecropper all in 10 short years; Gates simply answers, ‘Reconstruction ended.’….

In 2001, the AP ran a series called ‘Torn from the Land‘ that researched and confirmed claims of widespread land theft – claims that are crucial to the reparations movement.

Some of this stuff happened pretty recently. For example, much of the ethnic cleansing movement that created the so-called “sundown towns” (one of which is my own city of Springdale, Ark.) occurred in the 1920s, when many people now alive can still remember. As William Faulkner said, the past not only isn’t over, it really isn’t even past.

But as Bitch, PhD also points out, by no means all the land clearances resulted from extra-legal measures like lynching. They were also accomplished right up to the present day

through procedures that, are legal and that still disproportionately affect poor communities of color, i.e., partitioning, rezoning, ‘revitalization’/gentrification, and eminent domain.

So maybe it’s not Jeremiah Wright, but Pat Buchanan, who should stop whining and shut his damn piehole.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 24th, 2008.

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