Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.
Mark Gabriel Little is the executive director of the UNC-Chapel Hill-based CREATE, a global initiative building shared prosperity through applied interventions, research and policy. In this role he also leads NCGrowth/SmartUp, a multi-state initiative to help communities and business create jobs and equitable opportunities. He also co-chairs Black Communities: A Conference for Collaboration, an annual international convening of scholars and leaders across the African diaspora. In this episode, he will discuss strategies for a radically different economic future for Black people, communities and businesses.
For more content around this subject, be sure to check out Black Communities and COVID-19, a weekly webinar series that explored how people across the African diaspora are impacted by and navigating the coronavirus. Covering topics from health disparities to the arts, the series featured participants from BlackCom 2018 or 2019 discussing what is going on in Black communities where they live or work as well as how COVID-19 has affecting their own lives. Co-hosted by CURS Faculty Fellow Karla Slocum and Mark Little, the series ran from April through June 2020.
Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Mark Gabriel Little: AfroFutures
I have the privilege of working with a remarkable team of people who are committed to closing the prosperity gap, ending inequality and creating an equitable future for humanity. Fundamental to our work is a vision of a future where ownership, work, agency, wealth and power reflect the demographics of the people who live in a place. Unfortunately, the stark racial and ethnic disparities across all of these economic outcomes, as well as educational, health and criminal justice ones, are all the hallmarks of American apartheid—the challenge before us.
Given the declining power of education to improve economic outcomes, persistent racial wealth gaps and the disproportionate health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic outlook for African Americans, Indigenous Americans and Latinx Americans does not look promising.
But is it inevitable that COVID-19 will further entrench these devastating economic trends? Or will the state-sanctioned killings of Black bodies force a fundamental reckoning of American apartheid? If this moment in history is the harbinger of fundamental change, then Black activists, business leaders, academics and policymakers all have key roles to play in re-envisioning Black economic futures.
To generate a radically different economic future for Black communities, businesses, economies and people, some understanding of the economic history of the United States is necessary. Since the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, a common feature of both segregation and subsequent government-sponsored desegregation has been an explicit intent to disadvantage African American economic success and break down Black social structures. The antebellum South was de facto segregated; however, white Southerner’s relative loss of power during Reconstruction motivated many to seek redress by attacking Black progress of any kind. Black communities were constantly under threat from vigilante violence and from state and local government intervention—often because of the success of their local economies. Black economic and political power was seen as a threat by Southern whites.
After a century of Jim Crow, desegregation and urban renewal became opportunities to shutter Black schools and institutions, erode the Black professional class, disadvantage Black businesses and destroy community infrastructure. For example, the construction of Highway 147 in Durham, North Carolina during the 1960s devastated the Hayti neighborhood, displacing 500 African American businesses. Similarly, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s prosperous Black Wall Street, which was rebuilt after the devastation of the 1921 race massacre, was ultimately destroyed in 1970 by a federally-funded highway project.
So what can be done to repair the long-standing damage of racial economic inequality and chart a fundamentally different path for America? Since March 2020, a diverse spectrum of organizations and individuals, from activists to prominent Black scholars to public corporations, has advocated for a variety of approaches. However, there are two bold, comprehensive solutions that are receiving renewed attention.
Since the abolishment of slavery, there have been successive calls for Black reparations and for a Black cooperative economy. The closest we came to both was immediately after the Civil War when a group of Black ministers—led by a minister from Granville, NC—convinced General Sherman and President Lincoln to grant 400,000 acres of land from Charleston, SC to Florida to be “reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.” For the short time that the land was made available, the positive response from former slaves was overwhelming. However, President Johnson overturned this decision and returned the land to the previous white land holders. Imagine what a different place we might be in had that order stayed?
Every year since 1989, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, has been reintroduced into Congress. Proponents of reparations argue that the U.S. government owes compensation to the descendants of enslaved Africans for centuries of free labor. Contemporary scholars have extended the argument to include the economic impact of decades of racially discriminatory policies and their knock-on effects. Jim Crow laws suppressed African American wages, home values and economic activity. “Redlining” by the Federal Housing Administration intentionally prevented Blacks from owning homes and thus building intergenerational wealth. And de facto implementation of the G.I. Bill denied many African Americans access to a college education. The Homestead Act also excluded African Americans from acquiring tracts of land stolen during the Indian Wars and subsequently granted to more than a million white families. Nearly all of these examples are still affecting Black Americans’ wealth, health and education. Scholars have provided detailed enumerations of the debt and plans for how national reparations might be executed (e.g., direct payments, baby bonds, college tuition, commercial grants, etc.). Most recently, Duke professor William Darity makes a case for direct payments as the primary mechanism to distribute total reparations on the order of $10 trillion. The call for reparations gained popular currency during the 2019 presidential primary season, and they continue to pervade national and local discussions.
Movements to build separate Black cooperative economies have persisted since emancipation. Most historic Black towns and settlements founded by formerly enslaved people were rooted in the dream of a life and economy safe from government tyranny and vigilante violence. These places, as well as historic Black commercial districts, also proved successful in creating wealth and a Black middle class. Successive waves of ethnic immigrant communities have shown the potential of cooperative economics to rapidly improve economic outcomes—but only when free from vigilante, state and federal interventions. Despite the centuries-long efforts to destroy Black economies, the contemporary social movement for Black justice has galvanized interest in efforts among African Americans to “buy Black,” “bank Black,” and recycle wealth within African American communities. While the total value of Black-owned firms is small and Black firms are being disproportionately devastated by COVID-19, they are receiving renewed interest, for example #BuyBlack30Challenge, #BlackOutDay2020, Beyonce’s new collaboration with BlackOwnedEverything.co., and Durham, North Carolina’s Black August movement. Scholars Julian Agyeman and Kofi Boone conceptualize this potential future as “an expanded concept of the ‘Black commons’—based on shared economic, cultural and digital resources as well as land—could act as one means of re-dress…encouraging economic development and creating communal wealth.”
America has commoditized Black bodies, labor, culture; destroyed Black economies; and handicapped Black wealth and business. The U.S. Constitution, state law and local policy that created these outcomes were only possible because of the exclusion of African Americans from full citizenship. If this moment of economic and social upheaval is to result in a fundamental change in the economic trajectory of African Americans, then bold, Black ideas should be at the center of the national conversation alongside those of Native Americans and the Latinx community. Whatever approaches are ultimately taken, this moment in history affords an unprecedented opportunity to work together to re-envision our economic futures for the benefit of all peoples .