How reparations could work: Using the US’s past affirmative action for whites as a model

Reparations for on-going injustices against Native and African Americans are entirely feasible. Historic government programs for white people serve as a model.

The giant Monopoly game

Imagine the US economy thru history as a giant Monopoly game. In the beginning, Native Americans owned every parcel on the board. Several hundred years ago development was minimal, but most ethnic groups, from the Pueblo of the Southwest to the Iroquois in the Northeast, had permanent settlements and agriculture. In Monopoly terms, the game was young; perhaps a single house on most properties.

Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.

The Europeans arrived slowly. By 1600, over a hundred years after Columbus’s first voyage, the Spaniards had only toeholds in New Mexico and Florida. In 1607, Powhatan granted a small parcel of land to English colonists to build Jamestown as a vassal town. In 1619, an epidemic wiped out most of the inhabitants of Patuxet. The Pilgrims occupied the abandoned town, moved the unburied skeletons out of the way, and re-named it Plymouth. All told, the European settlers had the equivalent of Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues, the two cheap properties just after passing Go.

While Native Americans once had the entire board, today’s reservations are analogous to these cheap properties along the first row of the Monopoly board. 

After that, European immigration exploded. Every time the whites passed Go, they got a new player—or several. Using force, the threat of force, and overwhelming numbers, they quickly bought up most of the Monopoly board. I say “bought” because there is a paper trail, a treaty, for almost every square inch of land in the US, where Natives, albeit under duress and often trickery, ceded their land. In return, they got to keep a small parcel, today’s reservations. Some Native groups also got some treaty rights, which they continue to fight for in court to this day. In Monopoly terms, Native Americans were left with that strip of cheap light blue properties along the first row: Oriental, Vermont, and Connecticut Avenues.

The game went on and here we are in 2019. The whites, using slave labor from Africa, developed most of the properties, making it prohibitively expensive for Native Americans or African Americans (post-slavery) to move around the board. It’s hard to join a Monopoly game after it’s underway and all the properties are owned. They became one of those players only safe on their own property (if they had one) or in jail.

While Chance and Community Chest were sometimes a gold mine for whites (literally), they never went well for Native Americans. In the early 1800s, they gave up much of the eastern United States to pay off debts to white fur traders. They were ethnically cleansed via various “trails of tears” from many areas east of the Mississippi. This pattern replicated itself in the West in the late 1800s, and was followed by the massive deportation of children to boarding schools and high rates of forced sterilization and child removal through the 1970s. Major court battles over child removal continue today.

Where we are today

Today the inequalities created by joining the game late remain. There are massive differences in education, health, wealth, and a wide variety of socio-economic indicators. Only 19% of Native Americans attend college, compared to 42% for whites. High schools in solid Native or black areas often don’t offer a single AP class. Native American reservations, particularly those in the Dakotas and Montana, have the lowest life expectancies of anywhere in the US, a full 20 years less than the highest places. In 2007, life expectancy for males at Pine Ridge was 48, less than that of Haiti and among the lowest in the world. The average African American household has a net worth (made up mostly of the value of your home and vehicles) of $17,600, compared to $171,000 for white households. The gap is widening. Graduating college raises black wealth to an average of $68,000; it raises white wealth to almost $400,000. One can search on-line for “ethnicity” and anything from suicide to diabetes to unemployment to the odds of getting shot by the police and find wide racial disparities.

The Native reservations in the northern Plains, Southwest, and even Wisconsin stand out here. Also evident are the African American regions in the South, as well as the recent impacts of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia. This report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) stated that “inequalities in life expectancy are large and increasing.”

Affirmative action for whites

I’ve left some things out. Early in this giant Monopoly game the European settlers changed the rules. They got loans to buy land when they didn’t have enough money. They got their debts forgiven. They got land given to them for dirt cheap, even when they tried to steal it—especially when they tried to steal it. They got free college education. For them, it was like playing Monopoly when your grandpa is the banker and he’s doing all he can to help you win.

Here are some examples.

  • The Naturalization Act of 1790 specified that only “free white persons” could become US citizens. This philosophy continued, with few exceptions, until 1965. In many states, non-whites could not own land until 1952. Today, a preference for white immigrants has been resurrected by the writings of Ann Coulter and the policies of Donald Trump, who oppose immigrants from “hellhole” (Coulter) or “shithole” (Trump) countries.
  • The Preemption Acts of 1830 and 1841 gave illegal squatters (white “pioneers”) the right to buy public land “to which the Indian title had been… extinguished” if they simply lived on it. Up to 160 acres, for $1.25/acre. Basically, so many whites were breaking the law that the government decided to let them keep the land they were stealing. This led to a flood of pioneers west across the Mississippi River, staking claims to Native land in Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. The Act specified that you didn’t even have to be a US citizen; you only had to be white. This led to calls for “opening the land” and “manifest destiny”, euphemisms for ethnic cleansing. If the Natives stole a few pioneer horses, the US Army would wipe out a village. As Natives were forced to relinquish title, the nation’s Monopoly board shifted from predominately Native to mostly white ownership. Today, Ted Bundy and his followers claim “preemption rights”.
  • The Homestead Act of 1862 (and several later revisions of it) gave away over 270 million acres of public land taken from Native Americans. Nearly all of that went to white settlers. This amounted to about 14% of the Lower 48. Limited efforts were made to extend the program to freed slaves in the South. Compared to Spanish Latin America, where vast haciendas were granted to a few powerful families, the Homestead Act was remarkably progressive and egalitarian, divvying up the land to 1.6 million white families. Each family received 160 to 640 acres, essentially creating the white middle class. In Monopoly terms, properties were passed out to the white players for free.
At the sound of a cannon at noon on April 22, 1889, a large section of Oklahoma was opened to white settlers. Fifty thousand of them raced to stake claims on land recently freed of Native title. Most of the Natives, already removed once and sent to Oklahoma, watched in dismay as white pioneers occupied their land and stole their horses and cattle.
  • The Mining Law of 1872 allowed prospectors, nearly all white, to stake a claim to mineral rights on public land at a cost of $5/acre (a price which remains unchanged today). This led white gold miners to demand that the US take back the Black Hills, already defined by the Treaty of 1868 as part of the Great Sioux Nation. More on this below.
  • The Social Security Act of 1933 only applied to half the workers in the economy. Farm and domestic labor, both predominately black, were exempt. Approximately 65% of blacks were ineligible for Social Security.
  • The National Housing Act of 1935 created the Federal Housing Administration, which made home mortgages available to millions of white families. Black and others were excluded via redlining, as were Native Americans on reservations. This, more than any other measures, led to the massive racial discrepancy in wealth today. Between 1865 and 1990, African Americans’ share of national wealth grew from 0.5% to 1.0%.
  • The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 granted unions the power of collective bargaining, a watershed moment in labor relations that gave white workers power and leverage. The Act, however, allowed unions to exclude people of color, denying them access to better jobs and union protections.
  • After World War II, the GI Bill provided college tuition, living expenses, low-cost mortgages and low-interest business loans to nearly ten million white veterans. These benefits were largely denied to blacks. Native Americans on reservations were denied home loans. Navajo code-talkers still did not have the right to vote. (Acknowledgment: My father, a Cherokee Nation citizen who looked white and graduated high school, did go to college on the GI Bill. This largely explains my socio-economic status today.)

Most of the racial discrimination in these laws or in the implementation of these programs were challenged in court, and most were upheld by the US Supreme Court. These laws, some of them considered the bedrock of US history, illustrate that the nation was built on the premise of white supremacy—the notion that the nation was primarily created by and for white people. The rest were either second class citizens, support staff, slaves, or not wanted at all. This was not only white privilege, it was welfare, socialism, and affirmative action for whites only. These programs form the basis of white middle class wealth to this day.

For nearly 200 years, the Supreme Court said affirmative action for whites was okay. Now they say it’s not okay for anyone else; now it’s time to put racism behind us and be “color blind”. Conservatives use slogans such as “all lives matter” and the “the only race is the human race” to sweep cries for justice under the rug. Now that whites have helped themselves to nearly all the properties on the Monopoly board, the Supreme Court looks at people of color and says shut up and roll the dice; we’re playing fair now.

Ideas for reparations today

Unwinding a Monopoly game already well underway, regardless of the injustices and ill-gotten gains, is a very difficult task. Its only analogies in history are a few dramatic – and violent—revolutions: France 1792, Mexico 1917, Russia 1917, and China 1949. Only these effectively cleared the game board and started over; only these completely re-ordered society. The end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 offers an intriguing model of restorative justice thru its Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, although the peaceful revolution fell short with regard to meaningful economic change.

Another interesting model is the Year of Jubilee, prescribed in the Old Testament for the Israelites and announced by Jesus (“the Year of the Lord’s Favor”) at the start of his ministry (Luke 4:18-19). It was supposed be implemented every 50 years: massive land reform where all properties reverted back to their previous owners, the release of all slaves, and forgiveness of all debts. It was a remarkably progressive economic policy, designed 2,400 years before Karl Marx, but there is no evidence it was ever implemented.

More practical and feasible, however, is looking to the US’s own history for ideas for reparations. The programs described above, the various forms of affirmative action for white settlers, provide a recipe of policies that could be used today to restore blacks and Native Americans to the great game, to be fully functioning members of the economy, with equal access to its opportunities. That is what reparations are about.

Using the examples above, here are some modern equivalents.

The Homestead Act = Land Restoration

It is difficult to take land away from someone and give it to another. However, over a quarter of the United States is still in federal government hands. It was all taken from Native Americans at one point, and a lot of it was never given to white settlers. A case in point are the Black Hills. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled it rightfully belonged to the Sioux. Since 10% of the world’s gold came from the Homestake Gold Mine created there in the aftermath of the land theft, the Sioux could arguably make a much larger claim. Most of the Black Hills are a federally-owned national forest, which could easily be turned over to them. They would also be owed, at a minimum, Thunder Basin National Grassland, where buffalo could be restored. In fact, buffalo could and should be restored to a number of Native-managed lands.  

Many other lands illegally taken, such as the Powder River country or parts of the last Cherokee “cession”, are privately-held but sparsely populated today, perhaps even less populated than three hundred years ago. They could be bought back and returned to the appropriate tribal governments.

Nearly 27% of the United States, including 21% of the Lower 48 and 46% of the West, is in federal government hands. While this includes national parks (bright green), military bases (blue), and even Native reservations (red) held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the vast majority of federal lands, 88%, is split nearly evenly between the US Forest Service (olive green) and the Bureau of Land Management (yellow).

The GI Bill = Education Equality

Education is supposed to be the “great equalizer”. America is supposed to be great because anyone, even the poor kid, can go to school, work hard, and become president someday. But the odds are against them. Across the nation, education funding and outcomes are closely correlated with the socio-economic status of the local school district. The inequalities are so glaring that they drive property values. Every class, every program, every extracurricular opportunity available to a rich kid should be available to a poor kid.

Social Security = Health Care

While access to the Indian Health Service is a treaty right, it has been a disgrace. Native health indicators lag far behind those for whites. Moreover, the Indian Health Service has been responsible for systematic involuntary sterilization of Native women as recently as the 1970s. Full access to health care, including access to services on remote reservations, is required. If Paul Farmer can bring First World health care to rural Haiti, the US can bring it to Pine Ridge and Navajo Nation.

The Mining Law = Small Business Grants and Loans

Today’s Indian reservations are yesterday’s concentration camps, most of them remote and disconnected from the rest of the economy. They need an infusion of funds and support to jump start economic activity and create jobs. Grants and low-interest loans are required. The same is true for predominately African-American neighborhoods, many of which evolved as a result of redlining by the Federal Housing Administration.

Reparations and healing

To date, the only reparations ever paid by the US government was for $300 per slave, but this was to the slaveholders, to compensate them for their losses. A plan to divide up Southern plantations and give each freed slave 40 acres and a mule never came to fruition. It is too late for past generations, but current generations continue to suffer.

Reparations are about recognizing current inequalities that are linked to past injustices and addressing them. They are about leveling the playing field in the present and repairing a relationship. They also serve as a major step, symbolic and/or practical, in bridging a divide and healing a broken relationship.

As described above, reparations thru programs and policies, rather than cash distributions to individuals, offer a chance for the nation to clean house, to address many of society’s problems, and simultaneously acknowledge and address its racist past.

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