You’re Doing It All Wrong: Wealth in American History
Dr. Walter Greason
30 September 2014
Are you tired of being broke? Is it frustrating to walk around your community and see struggling small businesses, not mention hundreds of other families desperately trying to make rent and pay mortgages every month? Stop. Stop now. Your daily behavior feeds the cycles and structures that cause these problems. More importantly, tell your friends and family to stop. Organize with them to protect all of your economic interests. Use your social groups, Facebook pages, churches, unions, and any other organization you can to spread the word. For almost 240 years, a labyrinth of poor economic theory, a quagmire of distracted histories, and a morass of unintelligible legislation and jurisprudence have obscured the primary purpose of a free market economy.
One investigation that illustrates the problem is the study of African American history. Many scholars have emphasized the role of slavery in building the American economy through the export of cotton during the nineteenth century. A frequent notation is the Constitutional ban on the importation of African slaves after 1808. Some writers argue that this reflected the Revolutionary plantation owners willingness to concede that slavery should not continue in the new nation. Others consider the compromise based on the aggressive increase in kidnappings and sales between 1790 and 1808 to fuel the rapidly expanding plantations of the middle South. For this column, consider gradual emancipation. Between 1750 and 1800, northern ports like Boston, Philadelphia, and Perth Amboy hosted slave auctions that fueled the tobacco economies in Maryland and Virginia. With gradual emancipation, many northern slaveholders moved quickly to profit from their enslaved African assets, selling thousands of people to the plantations of the Chesapeake Valley.
These sales generated the currency that built the mills, roads, and initial commerce of the United States. They also cemented the concept that Africans and African Americans would never be citizens – property owners – in the eyes of American courts, legislatures, markets, and much of the population. African Americans were “public property” – a problem to be managed by legitimate citizens. This attitude was openly maintained in law until 1965. Its manifestations in the marketplace dominated commerce until 1994. Rhetoric in the last twenty years about “A Contract with America” and “Taking back the country” keep this concept alive in the hearts of hundreds of millions of people. Worse, it is one of the strongest manifestations of historian Carter G. Woodson’s idea about “miseducation.” Generations of African Americans – despite waves of emancipation and decades of civil rights activism – had a very limited sense of property ownership as the most important principle of American citizenship. Even comparatively successful efforts to address fundamental inequality, like the Tuskegee Machine, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, or Black Enterprise, never grasped the scale of American property ownership necessary to effectively challenge the entrenched institutions that maintained this “public property” status.
The only effort that had any success in transforming the fundamental economics of racism in the United States was the increasing number of migrants who moved from rural plantations to industrial cities between 1880 and 1970. The physical movement of black labor (as human capital) made organizations from the National Association of Colored Women through the TransAfrica Forum possible across the United States. For people in poverty, especially across multiple generations, migration is an essential solution. It changes economic opportunity, regional politics, and local cultures. Gerald Horne discussed the importance of understanding the Black Freedom Struggle in global context throughout history at the recent Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) convention in Memphis, Tennessee. This lesson applies to a broader platform for liberation around the world. Organized systems of labor migration among the nations in South America, Africa, eastern Europe, and southeast Asia (in partnership with internal migrations among Canada, the United States, and Mexico) can finally extend the promise of industrial property ownership to African Americans, ethnic minorities, and women everywhere.
Over the next year, scholars and leaders from every continent will discuss this agenda to build a more accountable and just world economic system. In Atlanta at the Centennial celebration of the ASALH, the implementation will begin. Break the historic pattern. Build wealth for your family and neighborhood. It is your best chance to get it right.
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth – a company bringing global investment to working class cities and towns in North America. He is also the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on LinkedIn, Twitter (@icmgrowth / @worldprofessor1), Facebook, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). For booking information (workshops and speaking engagements), contact NJHistory350 (email@example.com).