I recently had the honor of being present at the gubernatorial signing of a California State Senate bill authored by my friend, Senator Steve Bradford. His bill, SB 796 restored ownership rights to a property stolen from the Bruce family, a Black family who had property taken in Manhattan Beach California, nearly 100 years ago. Some of us saw this as a beginning of reparations for past injustices. Others felt the Bruce family were not entitled to any consideration.
Oddly, weeks before the ceremony, a candidate for governor of California in the recent recall election said he believed that if reparations were due, they should go to the slave owners because they actually lost property! He went on to say that the greatest impediments to Black economic progress is a lack of family values and poor work ethics, not racism. “If only Black people worked harder they would see there is no racism in America” he proclaimed. Everyone has equal opportunities in America.
Many conservatives suggest that after the 14th Amendment, the path for Blacks was equal to that of whites. Of course they are opposed to the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” as well as the 1619 project which chronicled the history of slavery in the United States. Not since the establishment of a holiday celebrating the life birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King have I heard such blatantly anti-Black rhetoric. By the way, this was a Black man! So I decided I needed to review some race history in the United States, my own “Critical Race Theory.” After the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865, ending slavery and the 14th Amendment, was ratified on July 9, 1868, granting equal rights, Black people were supposed to be free, right? If these two amendments are to be believed, and the brother is right, then there is no racism in America as we all have equal opportunities to achieve the American dream? So what happened to Black people between 1868 and today?
Eight years before the 13th Amendment the US Supreme Court ruled that “Blacks had no rights the white man was bound to respect,” the Dred Scott Decision 1857. US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, wrote the majority decision. Notice he didn’t say slaves but “Blacks.” Did that sentiment die with Taney?
On January 16, 1865 General William T. Sherman promised land in South Carolina Georgia and Florida along the Atlantic coast to be deeded to former slaves. Some 18,000 Black men actually fought and died with the union army during the Civil War. “40 acres and a mule” was the promise. However, very few plots were actually granted. What would 40 acres be worth today? Incidentally, Black people have fought and died in every war for this country since its inception! In 2011, the Brown family, a descendant of one of those 18,000 men was granted 40 acres by the US Supreme Court!
In the period following the Civil War, Blacks in the south were beginning to prosper. Apart from actually succeeding in business, Black men were being elected to public office. Several members of the US Congress and a US Senator from Mississippi, Hiram Revels were Black! This period was known as Reconstruction. Union soldiers were stationed in the south to keep the peace during this transition. So what happened? The “Compromise of 1877,” allowed Rutherford B. Hayes to become president, in exchange for removing the troops from the south who were keeping the peace between southern whites and recently freed Blacks. This compromise ushered in the “Jim Crow” era denying the right to vote and most other rights to Black people. Lynching and other forms of violence against Black people escalated, as did the system of share-cropping, which was in some ways much like slavery. Soon all the Black elected officials were removed from office, most without a vote. Black men were actually killed for even attempting to vote.
As an extension of the Dred Scott decision, came the Black Codes and vagrancy laws. These laws made it a crime for a Black man not to be employed by an approved business. So a Black man could be stopped on the street, asked where he worked, and to prove it. If he couldn’t he was arrested and charged with vagrancy. He could be sentenced to jail and then leased into a convict labor program. Many brothers died as the working conditions in the convict labor programs were sub-human. Often they received little food and water, no shelter or medical attention. The arresting officer was paid for the convicts, another form of slavery. The 13th Amendment actually said slavery was “legal if someone were convicted of a crime.” However, it didn’t specify what a crime was. This system wasn’t repealed until 1972 by the US Supreme Court in Papachristou vs Jacksonville!
We recently heard of the 100 year anniversary of the Tulsa OK massacre in 1921. Commonly referred to as “Black Wall Street,” where several hundred Black men were murdered with government participation. They actually dropped bombs on the Black Greenwood community. We didn’t hear as much about East St Louis where a similar thing happened on May 28, 1917, hundreds of Black men murdered, property destroyed, and no reparations. Or Rosewood Florida, in January 1923 where again Black men were murdered, property confiscated with no law enforcement protection. There were numerous other incidents where Black men and women were murdered, enslaved and stripped of property, with government complicity. Some estimates place the losses to be in the $Billions. Many historians attribute much of the violence against Black people in the early 20th century to the 1915 movie, “Birth of a Nation” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was shown in the White House by racist President Herbert Hoover! What might our plight have been had these racist atrocities not been allowed to take place?
Most economists agree that real estate, particularly homeownership is the most effective way to increase net worth, and create generational wealth. So it stands to reason that the real estate industry, both public and private has proven to be racist. In many areas, the racism in the real estate industry persists to this day.
In 1968 Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discrimination in real estate lending. Coincidentally, this was the same year Dr. King was assassinated. We saw steady growth in Black homeownership from 1968 until roughly 2005. However, today Black homeownership as a percentage is actually less than it was prior to the signing of the Fair Housing Act! The 2008 financial crisis hit Blacks harder than anyone else, in part because of racist loan practices.
In 1934 at the conclusion of the “Great Depression” President Roosevelt created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). FHA established a secondary market for real estate loans, insuring banks making mortgage loans. This is where the 30 year mortgage originated. The FHA underwriting manual said, “It is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in value.” It was from here that we got “Redlining” whole areas where the FHA would not lend to Blacks.
In many cities, like Los Angeles, there were “racially restrictive covenants” placed on deeds. In short this said a property could not be legally sold to a Black person! As you might imagine, the FHA supported these covenants. Not until 1948 when Los Angeles attorney Loren Miller, a Black man won Shelley vs. Kraemer before the US Supreme Court. This did away with the enforcement of these racist laws. People with old deeds can still see the language. Incidentally, 1948 was the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Baseball.
Here in Los Angeles was one of the most exclusive Black neighborhoods in the country, Berkeley Square. Located just west of Western Ave, on what is now the Santa Monica Freeway, this was an exclusive Black area so the freeway had to go there, right? That same freeway also wiped out a prosperous Black community in Santa Monica.
I could go on about the injustices done to Black people in America, after slavery. From economic opportunities, educational opportunities, real estate discrimination, criminal justice discrimination, Black people in America have often been treated unfairly by the public and private sectors. That said have we done some things I’m not proud of, yes course? But for anyone to simply focus on those things and not take into account the total history, all I can say is, Negro Please!
“Freedom to Discriminate, How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America” Gene Slater
“The Color of Law A forgotten History of how Our Government Segregated America” Richard Rothstein
“The Whiteness of Wealth, How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans and How We can Fix it” Dorothy A. Brown
“White Space, Black Hood Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality” Sheryll Cashin
Roderick D. Wright, Former California State Senator