The United States of America promises its citizen equality and the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. At least, that is what we are told; however, examining the not so distant past tells us a much different story that people of color and low socio-economic status were and are not afforded the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Most notably, this is evident when looking at the economic inequality existing today and what led to it.
Many argue that this inequality results from poor work ethic, lack of intellectual capability or moral failings, but the truth is that much of the economic instability connects to exclusionary opportunities provided to white men and women by the American government, unequal protection by law and several discriminatory policies that prevented the African-American and other minority populations from acquiring and accumulating wealth and property and establishing financial independence for themselves and their families.
One of the best examples to illustrate the differences in financial opportunities can be observed when reviewing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal established in the 1930s. Commonly, this is seen as an economic reform that positively impacted American’s ability to become economically secure by expanding the middle class and making opportunities more accessible for those who were living in poverty to move into the new middle class.
While this is true for some Americans, the effects of the New Deal looked much different for African Americans. In fact, many of the programs that composed the New Deal were not offered to people of color.
Not only were racial minorities excluded from these economic benefits, but they were also indirectly harmed by the new reforms. New Deal policies like the Agriculture Adjustment Act, the goal of which was to reduce farming production and increase price for goods, and the Wagner Act, which allowed the exclusion of black and brown Americans in labor unions, led to over 500,000 African Americans losing their jobs and reducing the leverage of those who were employed to lobby for higher wages.
The belief that the New Deal helped to combat inequality could not be further from the truth considering its programs helped elevate the economy of white America while further oppressing the financial situation for people of color. While inequality in the availability of the welfare programs included in the New Deal impeded economic growth for minorities, African Americans were also living without the protection of the law.
Particularly in the American south and for the majority of the twentieth century, black men and women were not provided with same protection by the law that white citizens were. For instance, many black families were forced into selling their farmland, property, businesses and houses for unfair compensation due to the threat of violence from white supremacist groups in the area if they refused. In some cases, these families received no compensation at all for their ownings.
Without the means to provide food, shelter or other basic needs for themselves and their families, these individuals were forced into an exploitative workforce to work as sharecroppers, clerks or other jobs for the very men and women that seized their property and taken away their financial freedom by paying them minuscule amounts as low as 5% of the income.
Although this was illegal, laws and the enforcement of those laws were not applicable to the black population considering many of those in law enforcement and local government were heavily and openly involved with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups who formed lynch mobs with murderous intentions to any black man or woman who resisted their demands. This robbery without support from authority figures in local and state governments hindered the ability for African Americans to build economic stability while preventing the passing of businesses and property to their children robbing hundreds of thousands of people of color from the same chance of generational wealth that white people were entitled to.
As the fatal realities of living in the south occurred cyclically, over 6,000,000 left their homes in the south and moved north between 1910 and 1970 in hopes of finding all the promises to the citizens of the United States included in the Declaration of Independence, but it did not take long to realize systemic racism was a preexisting condition woven into the foundation of the nation that could be found everywhere north and south. While the forms may change, the underlying themes of exploitation, oppression and racism existed everywhere.
Many black and brown citizens fled the horrors of the southern United States just to find themselves living a nightmare in the north. During this time, redlining ran rampant with little to no public pushback. Redlining racially divided neighborhoods in cities to determine which areas banks could issue loans in and where loans were deemed to risky.
Black neighborhoods were deemed too great of a risk to receive loans leading to lack of opportunity to purchase homes, businesses or land through banks. Instead, the only way to purchase homes were through third-party contract peddlers. These peddlers would exploit the desperation of the black community by issuing contracts with unreasonable interest rates, undisclosed fees, overpricing the property and clauses which granted the peddlers ownership and equity paid into the house for any offense they judged deviant. After evicting these families, the peddlers kept the payments and moved on to their next victim, making them rich while depleting the already limited resources of their victims.
This portion of history is especially relevant in today’s political and social climate where reparations, universal income and socialized programs are heavily debated points of interest. False narratives are pushed to undermine support for these programs in order to protect the rigid class structure in America that is the product of centuries of dedication to white supremacy. Seeking reparations is not about providing an unfair advantage to minorities but correcting the history of exploitation and inequality in the name of fairness.
Jaylen Minefield is a junior majoring in sociology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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