Racism and the heartland reparations drive
By Derrick Z. Jackson, 8/6/2003
RECENTLY WROTE a piece saying America should apologize for slavery. This resulted in an expected deluge of e-mails castigating me for dredging up events that most white Americans today deny any tie to. Most e-mails did not touch with a 10-foot American flagpole whether their white privilege of today is in any way due to the fact that America grew fat on slavery for nearly 250 years and white immigrants moved past black folks for another 100 years in housing and education under government-sanctioned segregation and repression.
This was on top of columns defending affirmative action for African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans at the University of Michigan. It's over, the e-mails said. Get over it. Get a life.
So imagine my feigned surprise that even as many white readers continue to vent their anger at me, Congress is openly entertaining reparations for white people in the plains, the prairies, the swamps, and the mountains. Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and 16 other Democratic and Republican senators representing South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Georgia, Louisiana, and West Virginia have introduced the New Homestead Act.
In 1862 the federal government established the original Homestead Act, which used free land to lure people out West (well, free once it was stolen by slaughtering the Indians). One hundred forty-one years later, the rural parts of America's heartland, once so fertile for so many small farmers and mom-and-pop entrepreneurs, changed as agribusiness and Wal-Mart moved in. Small factories lost jobs overseas. Young people with fewer opportunities fled for the bright lights and computer-oriented work of the cities.
In the heartland, 70 percent of rural counties have lost an average of 30 percent of their population in the last 20 years. The states that have lost the most people since 1980 have been the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and Iowa. ''The heartland of our country is being relentlessly depopulated, and we need to do something about it,'' Dorgan has said.
When factories and mills left the black community in the Northern Rust Belt or the Southern mills, America said tough luck, that's how the global economy crumbles. No one did anything about the redlining that froze home values in black communities while prices soared in the suburbs. Decimated black farmers say it is still hard to get loans from the US Department of Agriculture despite a 1999 settlement (there were black farmers who took advantage of the Homestead Act, but their communities withered away a long time ago). For years the Urban League called for a Marshall Plan to rescue inner cities.
The response of Capitol Hill and the states to lack of opportunity for African-Americans was an unprecedented prison boom. Ten percent of African-American men ages 25 through 29 are in jail, compared with 1.2 percent of white Americans the same age.
Dorgan and his fellow senators are not so heartless for the heartland. For recent college graduates who resettle for at least five years in depopulated plains counties, the government would repay up 50 percent of their college loans up to $10,000.
Home buyers who stayed five years would get a $5,000 tax credit on their purchase. Any losses in value could be deducted from their taxes. New businesses would get tax credits. A $3 billion venture capital fund would guarantee up to 40 percent of the smaller start-ups and up to 60 percent of large manufacturing ventures.
Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has also suggested tax incentives that would make it easier for banks to make loans to new small farmers. ''No one county or state can turn this around on its own,'' Dorgan has said. ''But the country as a whole can do it if it decides the heartland is important to save.''
Next thing you know, Amtrak will have high-speed rail from Duluth to Des Moines.
As a native of the heartland who lived in Milwaukee and Kansas City, I understand the visceral appeal of some sort of rural preservation. Dorgan said the New Homestead Act is ''a bill to reward the hard work and risk of individuals who choose to live in and help preserve America's small, rural towns and for other purposes.''
Dorgan's effort is also an inadvertent slap in the face of generations of African-Americans who worked hard in hard jobs made harder by segregation and discrimination. There was no Dorgan to offer a restoration program after the economic rug was pulled out from under them.
For over a decade now, Representative John Conyers of Michigan has asked for a commission merely to study the issue of reparations. All he gets is a derisive laugh from colleagues.
The white heartland of America could eventually get tax credits, college loan repayments, and guarantees against losses. It is affirmative action and reparations all rolled into one. When black folks want it, we're beggars. When white folks want it, they're hard workers. That is an example of how white privilege has remained alive from the time America stole the land for the first Homestead Act to today's proposal for a new one.