Updated: Aug 20, 2020
This is the third article in a series I have written concerning the interplay between Christianity and racism in America. In Part 1, we discussed how the Christian belief system has played a major role in reinforcing the racist structures undergirding American society. In Part 2, we discussed the ways in which predominately White churches must change if they are going reform the systems of injustice that have oppressed Black lives for hundreds of years. In this final post, we are going to explore three significant eras in American history and how they have contributed to our current moment. Through this narrative, we will open the door to what I feel is the key to White churches making a significant contribution to the restoration of Black communities in America—resource reallocation.
40 Acres and a Mule
In the late months of 1864, the strength of the Confederacy was beginning to crumble. General William T. Sherman of the Union Army had taken hold of Atlanta in September and completed his march to the sea by taking Savannah on December 21st. Sherman’s success essentially cut the Confederacy in half and laid the groundwork for Union victory less than a year later. An often overlooked aspect of Sherman’s monumental military achievement is that, following the conquest of Savannah, Sherman held a meeting with 20 black leaders.
Almost all of them were Baptist and Methodist pastors. Their spokesman was a 67 year old Baptist Minister and freed slave named Garrison Frazier. On January 12, 1865, on the second floor of Charles Green’s mansion on Savannah’s Macon Street, Sherman posed 12 questions to Frazier. At the core of those questions was something unprecedented. Sherman wanted to know: what do your people need in order to have the best possible start following the conclusion of the Civil War? The answer was unequivocal—land.
After 4 days of negotiations, General Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15. This order was a remarkable document that annexed 400,000 acres of land along the coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina specifically for the purposes of being shared by all newly freed slaves who had formerly been living in the Confederacy. Every freed slave family would be granted a plot of up to 40 tillable acres.
More importantly, this land would not reside under the jurisdiction of the former white governments of the Confederacy. Rather, these new communities were to be governed entirely by the freedman. This meant that the land could not be stolen by means of reclamation. The final touch was that no white person could reside on the land, which meant that, if the land were sold, it would have to be sold to members of the Black community. This agreement became known as “40 acres and a mule” because Sherman later instructed the Union Army to lend the freedmen mules to work the land.
This might sound like revisionist history, where we are inserting our present notions of race reparations on the past. I assure you it is not. In order to issue Special Field Order No. 15, Sherman needed approval from the commander in chief, President Lincoln, who swiftly gave his approval. Had it not been for Lincoln’s assassination, Order No. 15 would have defined the future of the Black community in America, giving them much-needed assets to build a viable future for themselves. Instead, Andrew Johnson, a Confederate sympathizer and Lincoln’s Vice President, overturned Order No. 15 in the fall of 1865, setting the stage for Jim Crow.
Separate but Equal
The Reconstruction period following the Civil War was fraught with tension. White southerners were bitter over losing the war and resented interference from the federal government in their affairs. In some instances, like the Memphis Riots or the New Orleans Massacre, white mobs banded together to exact revenge on the Black community by destroying black owned property and indiscriminately murdering innocent black lives. Eventually, this white rage became focused on legislation where the objective of every Southern state was to undermine the minimal economic and political gain achieved by people of color during Reconstruction.
After the ratification of the 14th amendment to the constitution guaranteeing equal rights of citizenship to freed slaves, the Southern states retaliated by creating what became known as Jim Crow laws. These were state and local laws that required racial segregation. In practice, this meant that public schools, hospitals, transportation, restrooms, and restaurants were all separated out. Since almost all of these things were funded with public dollars, the repercussion of these laws is that the facilities utilized by the Black community were consistently substandard.
These laws were challenged in Plessy v. Ferguson, where the U.S. Supreme Court fashioned the legal doctrine of “separate but equal”. With the legal precedent in place, the struggle of the Black community was now cemented into the fabric of American society where everything from the federal government to drinking fountains were segregated. And yet, the Black community was able engineer ways to rise up in spite of a lack of resources. Black schools may not have had the same level of funding, but their teachers strove to provide the best possible education for their students.
Although in the 1930s only 14 percent of African American children attended high school, those who did were pressed and prepared for college. Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, black colleges and universities were producing lawyers, doctors and scientists whose abilities, though not valued by the white community, made incredible contributions to our world. These professionals created a forward momentum that formed the basis of the first Black middle class.
By the late 1940s, the combination of New Deal legislation, unions and the establishment of industry in places like Harlem, the Southside of Chicago and South Central, Los Angeles created an unprecedented moment of upward mobility among Black families. For the first time in the history of the United States, college was an aspiration for children in many Black families. Black home ownership skyrocketed. The Black middle class was thriving in spite of the legal albatross hung around their necks.
When the Civil Rights Movement was finally able to release the burden of Jim Crow, two elements transpired to undermine all of that progress. First, beginning in the mid-60s, corporations began the process of moving their manufacturing overseas. If you’ve ever wondered why all the areas named above descended into poverty, it was not by choice. These workers literally had the economic rug pulled out from under them by the White owners of these companies who valued profits over the communities their companies employed.
You may be asking yourself, “Why didn’t the people living in these communities just move to find new jobs?” Because of what we talked about in the last post surrounding redlining. If you were black in the 60s and 70s, you couldn’t just move to a new location and find a new job. You were stuck in that area with limited opportunity. This leads to the second element that came into play in the early 1970s—mass incarceration.
The Racial Scythe
The 1960s was perhaps the most tumultuous period in the United States since the Civil War. The President of the United States had been assassinated in 1963; the Civil Rights Movement brought an end to segregation, entrusting the full rights of citizenship to people of color in 1964; and America began fighting the Vietnam War in an effort to prevent the spread of communism in 1965. By 1968, the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Baby Boomer Generation was coming of age and a number of them began protesting the war in Vietnam.
Many conservative White Americans felt that country they had known was slipping through their fingers. The values to which they subscribed had been subverted by a progressive agenda that, in their opinion, was sending the United States into a tailspin. The presidential election of 1968 was a referendum on this changing landscape. To the relief of many White Americans, Richard Nixon won. One of Nixon’s major platforms was ramping up the war on drugs.
At the time, this was seen as positive step forward. The hippie culture of the 1960s had made the casual use of drugs more acceptable and as minority communities collapsed from the abandonment of corporate industry, drug use in inner-cities began to soar. On top of this, many soldiers who had been fighting in Vietnam came back addicted to heroin. Nixon sought to fight this war on two fronts—supply and demand. Nixon criminalized the distribution of illegal drugs and created rehab treatment facilities for addicts. Although this made sense at the time, what we didn’t know is that Nixon had an ulterior motive for his war on drugs.
In 1994, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, had an interview with the journalist Dan Baum where he admitted, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
After New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller proposed harsher prison sentences, including mandatory minimums, for drug trafficking in January, 1973, Nixon followed suit. As these drug laws were implemented across the country, they disproportionately impacted people of color, particularly the Black community. In 1974, the total number of men incarcerated during the entire history of United States was 1,819,000. This includes state and federal prison. Of those, 857,000 were White, 595,000 were Black and 94,000 were Hispanic.
By 1991, due to the Reagan era War on Drugs, the number of people who had served time in state and federal prison population had nearly doubled to 3,437,000. In other words, from 1974 to 1991 (17 years), the number of people who served time in state and federal prison was almost the same as the number of people who had served prison time during the entire existence of the United States. More than half of these sentences were handed down because of drug offences, many of them for possessing minor amounts of controlled substances.
Among the White community, these laws were haphazardly enforced. Judges would often treat a white person arrested for controlled substances as an addict in need of rehab. Whereas among the Black community, maximum sentences were applied with impunity. A black person arrested for controlled substances was treated as a criminal. As a result, the black prison population exploded. By 1991, the percentage of black men in America who had served time in prison jumped from 8.7% to 12%.
By 2001, thanks to the Clinton era three strikes rule, the state and federal prison population almost doubled again to 5,618,000. By this point 16.6% of the prison population was black males compared to 2.6% of white males. This means if you were a black male in 2001, there was a 1 in 6 chance you were in some phase of the criminal justice system. Put simply, these laws were like a scythe that cut a hole in the heart of the Black community.
Within inner cities, as economic opportunity became scarce, the public education was devastated from a dearth of funding. The lack of upward mobility meant that drug sales became one of the few means of economic advancement. As more and more Black men were imprisoned, their children were being stripped of father figures and two parent incomes. Lacking the resources to create a better life for themselves, many children turned to gangs for protection and economic security, further reinforcing the cycle of poverty and feeding the prison industrial complex.
Today, Black males make up 6.5% of the American population, but they represent 40% of the prison populace. To put this another way, if you are a white male, you have a 5% chance of ending up behind bars. Whereas if you are a black male, you have a 33% chance of ending up in prison. What makes these statistics even more astounding is the fact that the current US prison population is the largest in the world at almost 2.2 million. We imprison more people than China (which has 4 times our population) and Russia, which is a semi-totalitarian state run by Vladimir Putin.
The purpose of this lengthy history lesson is to demonstrate one simple point: over that last 155 years, Black Americans have been systematically stripped of their capacity to forge viable lives for themselves. Whenever it seemed like the Black community might actually be in a position to make forward progress, White America stepped in to stall, halt, and often reverse that progress through legislative, economic and physical violence. As a result, generations of Black Americans have been inculcated into paralysis. With the entire system working against them, there is a deep-seeded belief that change is impossible.
Then came 2020 and an awakening on the part of White America. A number of factors conspired to allow the scales to fall from their eyes. A large swath of White people all of a sudden became conscious of the plight of Black life in America. Hence we are in a moment where the impossible has become possible. So the question becomes how do we use this momentum to stall, halt and reverse the horrific effects of this long history?
The truth is that Garrison Frazier had it right in 1865, assets are the key to upward mobility. Had the promise of “40 acres and a mule” become a reality, the trajectory for Black Americans might have been significantly altered. Special Field Order No. 15 is what we refer to as reparations. As politically charged as that word has become, reparations do work. A great example of this is when the Germans paid reparations to the Jewish people following the second World War.
It’s important to remember that the Nazi’s took everything from the Jews. Those who survived the war often came back home to nothing. Their bank accounts were drained. Their homes had been destroyed or were occupied by new tenets. In 1952, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer determined that it was appropriate to pay three billion German marks in reparations to Israel and 450 million German marks to the World Jewish Congress between 1953 and 1967. If we adjust for inflation, that’s the equivalent today of $7 billion for Israel and $1 billion for the World Jewish Congress. This money was critical in resettling holocaust survivors all over the world.
The United States did something similar with Japanese Americans following World War II. The government paid $20,000 in reparations to all Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps during the war. This money was restitution for the racist policies that imprisoned them and helped to reestablish the Japanese American community throughout the United States.
The problem we face today in providing reparations to African Americans in 2020 is how much time has elapsed since the end of the Civil War. The question that always comes front and center in this debate is how do we distribute reparations in a way that is fair and equitable? Black intellectuals have made some very good suggestions as to how this could be accomplished. In particular, I would recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates article called The Case for Reparations. However, given the political climate in our country, I would not anticipate the government moving on reparations any time soon.
This is where White Christian churches can create some forward momentum. I believe that all White churches need to establish a yearly fund that is set aside specifically for African Americans in the local community. This fund could be utilized to help pay for a variety of needs: scholarships for education, debt reduction, rent assistance, unpaid bills and legal fees. The goal would be to provide this money for any black person whose income cannot not cover their expenses or whose dreams require capital.
For example, say every church (or a group of smaller churches) made it a goal to set aside $50,000 a year. Imagine how a family facing eviction from job loss could turn to their local churches knowing that there is money set aside for rent. Imagine if their car breaks down and they know the church can fix it so they don’t have to worry about missing work. Imagine if a student, looking at the prospect of going to college, knows that money will be guaranteed for their education. When a family has assets on which they can rely, such a safety net means future ambitions can become a reality rather than a pipe dream.
I recognize what I’m proposing is a drop in the bucket compared to what is truly needed to fix this problem, but I believe that if a preponderance of White churches go down this road, the momentum could tip the scales in favor of national reparations through the federal government. To be clear, this is not the only area where White Christians need to take stand. Criminal justice reform, education and housing reform, fighting for a fair wage and speaking out against racist ideologies and theology are just as important. However, if we want to make an immediate difference, this idea can be implemented today.
I am passionate about the issue of resource reallocation because it was something that Jesus spoke about all the time. Whenever Jesus came across someone who had wealth, his instruction was that their money needed to be given away to those who require it most. For instance, when Jesus comes across the wealthy ruler he says, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (Mk. 10:21) In 21st century America, those who require (and are most deserving of) that money is the Black community.
From where I sit, I believe that Jesus is speaking to affluent White communities and asking us to lift up those in the Black community who have been disenfranchised by our actions and the actions of our forbearers. As I made clear in my last post, it’s important for White churches to set aside their savior complex. There is nothing salvific about solving a problem you helped to create. Instead, our job is to open the financial flood gates. When we share of our abundant resources by pooling our wealth and giving it to those who need it most, we not only follow Jesus’ teachings, but we move one step closer to creating God’s kingdom on earth.