Skip to main content

The Great White Heist

Slavery is the usual argument for reparations. But there’s another reason.

In this June 6 photo, demonstrators protest at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. The poster reads; When Does The/Our American Dream Begin?,ALEX BRANDON | AP

Sometimes their children walked. 

Sometimes their children rowed.  

Sometimes their children died. 

In 1948, when only 16 states in America had outlawed segregated public schools, Black parents in the tiny hamlet of Summerton, South Carolina, where three out of every four residents were Black, finally got tired of being robbed by white people. Their children were mostly just tired.  

 Every day, young Summertonians maneuvered through one obstacle course after another, only to be rewarded with an inferior education. If the children were lucky, they walked as far as nine miles to attend one of the segregated schools in Clarendon County’s District 22. On other days, rain would force students as young as 6 years old to wade across a stream to attend school. Often, when the water was particularly high, someone would provide a raft to row their way across the Lake Marion Reservoir. When they arrived at school, they would have to chop wood for their unheated classrooms … if they arrived. 

Sometimes a student would just drown on the way.  

This may sound like a rough life for impoverished rural students, but Summerton was not a poor town. The vast majority of Summerton’s Black citizens were employed. Many owned businesses or worked at comparatively well-paying jobs in local factories. Their employers withheld federal, state, and local taxes from their paychecks just like their white counterparts. Summerton’s Black residents were not exempt from paying property taxes, sales taxes, or any other assessment their government deemed necessary. Naturally, Black parents were outraged when they discovered the white children didn’t have to make the same daily trek as their children because the district had purchased 33 buses to chauffeur them to school. Incensed, a group of parents begged Clarendon County School Superintendent R.W. Elliot for just one bus, to serve the county’s Black students. 

He said no.  

So, Harry and Eliza Briggs along with 20 other Black families, contacted the NAACP and eventually filed Briggs v. Elliott, the first of five cases that would eventually be combined and become known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. But even before their case dismantled the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” precedent, the parents of District 22 fully understood why their children lived this precariously treacherous existence: 

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

White people in the district were stealing their money. 

All of them. 

Summerton is a but a microcosm of the greater United States. 

“Restorative justice” is redundant 

Punishing a thief is not justice, it is retribution. For justice to exist, the victim must be made whole and their losses must be repaid. The idea that justice and restitution are inextricably intertwined is a bedrock principle enshrined in American property law and federal statutes. While every state has different theft and larceny laws, the U.S. Department of Justice notes that “all states have statutory provisions related to the collection of restitution.” 

Without restitution, there can be no justice. 

Almost every argument for reparations is anchored in the injustice and residual effects of slavery. And it is often challenged by predictably trite counterarguments: “Slavery was so long ago.” “So few people owned slaves.” “What about the Black people who owned slaves?” “That’s how it was back then.” “How can you ask for reparations for something that was not a crime?”

But just because enslaving and stealing labor from Black people was perfectly legal prior to 1868, America should not get to ignore the calls for issuing dividends to the descendants of the people who supplied this nation with 246 years of free labor. 

However, there is a more compelling argument that may be more irrefutable. Namely, that slavery was just one small part of a loan that Black people invested into America for which we never reaped the dividends or the principal.     

At the center of this argument is how this country became and remained an economic superpower, due, in large part, to the contributions of Black America’s sweat equity and actual funds.   

We often talk about the unpaid wages of slavery but never talk about how free labor benefitted even those who didn’t own slaves. The cotton merchants made higher profits because they bought cotton cheaply. The ship-builders, the textile industry, the international traders, the national defense, and every free person in America benefitted from this free labor that propped up the entire national economy. 

But that was only a drop in the bucket when it comes to what America owes in reparations. 

If the 14th Amendment was meant to be a reset button that offered the American dream to the millions of Black hostages whose involuntary sweat equity built this country into a superpower, then the time since July 9, 1868, can only be described as a period of illegal theft.  

On that day, the Constitution of the United States was officially amended for the 14th time, declaring in part: 

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. 

The unconstitutional burgling of Black America actually began when slavery ended. If this wholly immoral but wildly successful experiment in venture capitalism called the United States was founded on July 4, 1776, then the startup capital of slavery only served as seed money for the first 89 years. However, the fantasy that we call the “American Dream” isn’t solely funded by decency, hard work, or American exceptionalism.  

It comes from theft. 

According to the Brookings Institute, in 2016, the average white family’s median wealth was $171,000, while the median wealth of a typical Black family was around $17,000. The reason for this staggering wealth disparity is not just due to slavery, Jim Crow, or even America’s unique form of racism. Since the moment the 14th Amendment was ratified, America has been engaged in a Robin Hood-like heist. But instead of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, the United States has circumvented the 14th Amendment by stealing Black America’s wealth and giving it to white people. Every white person in America—rich or poor, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican—has benefitted from stolen goods that were hijacked from Black America. 

Yes, all white people.  

The white Summertonians who rode on school buses bought, in part, with the taxes paid by Black residents whose children crossed a river of racism on foot is a perfect example. Those white children arrived at school well-rested and ready to learn while their Black counterparts endured inequities laid out in the initial Briggs v. Elliott complaint, including unhealthy and inadequate facilities, an insufficient number of teachers and classroom space, and inadequate resources. 

The Black parents were disproportionately paying for white students’ beautiful new schools and the comfort in which they engaged in learning. And this phenomenon wasn’t unique to Summerton. Even though South Carolina was 40% Black in 1948, statewide, Black schools were worth $12.9 million while white schools were worth $68.4 million. If those white students succeeded in their resource-filled schools, they could go on to one of more than a dozen public institutions of higher learning in South Carolina.  

However, if the Black graduates wanted to attend a state college, because of state segregation laws there was only one choice—South Carolina State College—the only public Black college in the state. This detail wouldn’t be important except for three important facts about the taxpayers whose money actually funded South Carolina’s whites-only state post-secondary schools and the one historically Black college, post emancipation: 

• South Carolina taxpayers paid for seven whites-only colleges.  

• South Carolina taxpayers paid for zero Black colleges. (South Carolina State University was a land-grant college, which meant it was founded with federal money after the Civil War.) 

• The majority of South Carolina taxpayers were Black. (According to U.S. census workers, most of the school-age population, taxpayers and wage-earners in the Palmetto State were Black). 

Every Black person in South Carolina was being robbed.  

Every white person in South Carolina benefitted from that stolen property. 

And the theft of Black wealth wasn’t just limited to education or just taking place in segregated states. Four years before Summerton’s Black parents filed suit against their children’s school district, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Commonly known as the G.I. Bill, the law offered government-guaranteed home loans and paid tuition costs for World War II veterans …   

Unless you were Black. 

In the book When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson notes that of the 67,000 mortgages approved under the G.I. Bill in New York and New Jersey, fewer than 100 of the home-buying veterans were not white. A banker in Corpus Christi, Texas, reportedly explicitly told one Black veteran in Corpus Christi: “It is almost impossible for a colored man to get a loan.” 

When it came to college loans, even colleges in the North rejected Black veterans and, because historically Black colleges and universities were packed to the gills with students who couldn’t attend white schools in the South, by 1946, only 20% of the former Black soldiers who applied for education benefits had enrolled in college, according to Hilary Herbold in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. 

“Though Congress granted all soldiers the same benefits theoretically,” writes Herbold, “the segregationist principles of almost every institution of higher learning effectively disbarred a huge proportion of Black veterans from earning a college degree.” 

Many of the G.I. Bill’s home loan denials were based on a government policy that may be the most important contributor to the racial wealth gap: 


Theft Through Homeownership 

If racism is the tool with which white America tunneled under the 14th Amendment and plundered the metaphorical bank of Black America, then redlining is the blueprints to the vault. In the mid-1930s, to lift America out of the Great Depression, the New Deal created huge economic programs sponsored by the federal government. The government mechanized farms, funded businesses, gave out jobs to any able-bodied American, built suburbs, and created a minimum wage. The new Social Security Administration (SSA) gave people financial security in their old age. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) gave people jobs. Most importantly, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) refinanced mortgages at low interest rates to prevent foreclosures.  

The progressive legislation was a massive investment in America’s future and, although it was costly, it lifted an entire country out of poverty. And more than any other group of legislation in American history, the jobs, social programs, and guaranteed loans created by the New Deal are responsible for building what we now call the “middle class.” There was only one problem: 

Black people, overwhelmingly, were not included. 

To ensure that these guaranteed mortgages were not risky, the HOLC created color-coded “residential security maps” of 239 cities. The maps essentially highlighted the neighborhoods that were good investments versus neighborhoods that were poor investments. The “risky” neighborhoods were highlighted in red, including every one of the 239 cities’ Black neighborhoods. 

But instead of using these maps only for HOLC refinances, which would have been racist in and of itself, banks began using these maps for all home purchases and refinancing. Because of this, as generations of Americans lifted themselves out of poverty, Black people could not take part in America’s primary driver of wealth—homeownership. 

Redlining was outlawed in 1968 by the Fair Housing Act, but it still affects almost every economic aspect of Black communities to this day. Nearly every calculable effect of institutional inequality can be traced back to this 85-year-old government policy. Redlining explains why researchers at the Brookings Institute found that homes in neighborhoods where the population is majority Black are valued, on average, $48,000 less than homes in white neighborhoods. The result is a $156 billion cumulative loss in Black-owned property values, even when the white neighborhoods have the same amenities, crime rates, and resources as the Black neighborhoods. 

According to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, about 36% of education funding comes from local property taxes. These lower home values, which are the direct result of redlining, mean that schools in Black neighborhoods receive less funding. Therefore, redlining is why Edbuild reports that majority-white school districts receive $2,226 more per student than non-white districts, resulting in a theft of $23 billion.  

Residents who live in formerly redlined areas pay higher interest rates and are denied mortgages more often than whites with the same credit and income, according to reporting by the Center for Investigative Journalism. People in redlined areas pay higher auto insurance rates, pay more for fresh food, have less access to medical care, pay higher interest rates on loans, receive more parking violations, pay higher bail amounts, and wait longer to vote. 

The white people who built their fortunes from low-interest loans, cheap food, and high home values don’t pay more taxes. Yet, they are benefiting from current and past policies that have taken money from Black taxpayers and handed it over to whites. 

Perhaps there is someone with an adding machine powerful enough to calculate the immense value of this stolen wealth. It would be interesting to compare the towering stack of dollars that represent the stolen labor of enslaved Africans with the Black wealth that has been embezzled over the past 152 years. We invested our money on the ground floor of this nation—with literal sweat equity—and we deserve a return on our investment. And centering the reparations conversation on slavery absolves the non-slaveholding thieves who are still walking around with our dividends in their pockets.  

Justice demands restitution and until there are reparations, there can be no justice. Until there are reparations, anyone who pledges their allegiance to the flag that stands for a country with “liberty and justice for all” is a liar … 

And a thief. 


MICHAEL HARRIOT is a senior writer at covering the intersection of race, politics and culture. His book, BlackAF History, will be released in the spring of 2021.