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What Happened to My Forty Acres and a Mule, Fool?
December 14, 2007 10:26 AM   Subscribe

40 acres and a mule has been a slogan of African-American economic aspirations ever since the legislation creating the Freedman's Bureau promised ex-slaves parcels not exceeding forty acres each, to the loyal refugees and freedmen. General William Tecumseh Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15 decreed that the land on slave plantations be seized and distributed to freed slaves, but Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and vetoed expansion of the Freedman's Bureau. Both Henry Louis Gates and Dalton Conley have associated the failure to grant freed slaves their "40 acres and a mule" with the wealth gap between black and white Americans, but now an economics grad student, Melinda Miller, has brought important quantitative data to the debate in a new research paper.

Using census data from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which was forced to distribute land to freed slaves of the Cherokee tribe shortly after the Civil War, Miller has found a natural experiment that makes it possible to quantify how much the failed dreams of "40 acres of a mule" are at the root of interracial disparities of wealth. According to a fine summary by econo-blogger Tyler Cowen, Miller argues that the failure to distribute land to slaves may account for as little as 20% or as much as 75% of the black/white wealth gap.
posted by jonp72 (43 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
40 acres and a mule is also the name of Spike Lee's production company.
posted by Baud at 10:31 AM on December 14, 2007


I know what you are trying to say, but even 20% isn't really "little". Anyone who argues otherwise should ask themselves if they'd take a 20% pay reduction.
posted by DU at 10:32 AM on December 14, 2007


Fascinating post, thank you.
posted by jokeefe at 10:41 AM on December 14, 2007


I know what you are trying to say, but even 20% isn't really "little". Anyone who argues otherwise should ask themselves if they'd take a 20% pay reduction.

Perhaps I should have said "minimum" instead of little, but what I meant was that 20% was a lower bound estimate. As a lower bound, it's still pretty large, though.
posted by jonp72 at 10:43 AM on December 14, 2007


The 40 acres was not an entitlement as such. It was never "theirs" to begin with, and therefore can't be responsible for the wealth gap between black and white americans. Free blacks before the existence of the Bureau were not entitled to anything, so the failure of a subsequent new law do fulfill its mandate changes nothing but diminishing elevated expectations.

I'm not disputing the economics of the report. 40 acres would obviously have been a tremendous basis of contemporaneous and future wealth. But considering that much of those 40 acres would have been on land taken under questionably legal circumstances from indians makes it ethically difficult to parse out. Furthermore, because it is a government program, there is no obligation for the government to continue it. Abolishing the law that created the entitlement is not the same thing as denying someone the entitlement. If unemployment benefits are cut from 6 weeks to 4, the government isn't dneying you two weeks of unemployment benefits you are due.

Furthermore, many of the immigrants who arrived in refugee waves after WW1 and 2 arrived with nothing, and speaking the wrong language. Does the wealth disparity exist in those groups?

The wealth gap is due to education. Even free blacks were disadvantaged educationally due to discrimination which became much more institutionalized in the South after the Civil War.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:50 AM on December 14, 2007


She also ignores the catalyzing effects of collective action and investment: black investment in black communities, rather than white refusals to grant loans to black entrepreneurs, for instance.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:53 AM on December 14, 2007


Furthermore, many of the immigrants who arrived in refugee waves after WW1 and 2 arrived with nothing, and speaking the wrong language. Does the wealth disparity exist in those groups?

Seriously: were they coming from the same background as the blacks? Again, not snarking, but I'm curious about the background of the immigrants vs those of the blacks and how the economic conditions were different from WW1, 2 and the end of the War between the States.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:56 AM on December 14, 2007


I know what you are trying to say, but even 20% isn't really "little". Anyone who argues otherwise should ask themselves if they'd take a 20% pay reduction.


I know what you're trying to say too. Mainly because your use of the word little is perfectly correct and "little" has dozens of meanings.
posted by rhymer at 10:56 AM on December 14, 2007


It was never "theirs" to begin with, and therefore can't be responsible for the wealth gap between black and white americans.

As unremunerated slaves, they had the right to back wages and damages. This was the equivalent of a legislative settlement to a class action suit.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:57 AM on December 14, 2007 [8 favorites]


Though certainly most immigrants did not arrive in style, and some not even voluntarily, comparing their economic situation to that of the slaves seems a little problematic to me.
posted by hermitosis at 10:59 AM on December 14, 2007


"Furthermore, many of the immigrants who arrived in refugee waves after WW1 and 2 arrived with nothing, and speaking the wrong language. Does the wealth disparity exist in those groups?"

As I understand it, when these immigrants arrived, there were already established communities of similar immigrants who would help them gain entry-level jobs, often in productive industry. No such structure existed for former slaves and their descendants, who often (but not always) made the trip to Northern cities without a guaranteed job prospect, and even those job prospects did not pay as well or offer opportunities for advancement that were equal to those of non-black immigrant groups.
posted by ofthestrait at 11:06 AM on December 14, 2007


as little as 20% or as much as 75%

Nails it right down, don't it?
posted by chlorus at 11:27 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


But considering that much of those 40 acres would have been on land taken under questionably legal circumstances from indians makes it ethically difficult to parse out.

White folk didn't have (and still do not have) any ethical or moral difficulties in claiming Indian land for themselves and trading title with each other. And the mule presented no moral difficulty at all. It just goes to show that even those anti-slavery crackers were just too damned racist to give a brother a leg up.
posted by three blind mice at 11:28 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Though certainly most immigrants did not arrive in style, and some not even voluntarily, comparing their economic situation to that of the slaves seems a little problematic to me.
posted by hermitosis at 1:59 PM on December 14


While ofthestrait's comment makes a very good point, you can't really have less than nothing. Many of the immigrants arrived totally destitute, having sold whatever they had left from any given war to pay for passage. I agree it isn't the same thing, but you are also dismissing the existence of successful black farming communities in the south and midwest after the civil war. My point is not that slaves were not poor, but rather that overt racism and educational discrimination (such as burning down some of the aforementioned successful farming communities, underfunding black schools, etc) had a far greater and longer lasting effect than the termination of a very short lived (two years) entitlement program.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:29 AM on December 14, 2007 [3 favorites]


Oh, excellent post by the way.
posted by three blind mice at 11:30 AM on December 14, 2007


you can't really have less than nothing

You can have the label "nigger" and a society that views you as little more than a pack animal. That's less than nothing.
posted by three blind mice at 11:31 AM on December 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Also the wikipedia page on Freedmen's Bureau needs some serious attention. Under "Overview" it currently reads, "In 1865, he took over germany and made george bush his sex slave. Hes main role was providing emergency food, housing and medical aid to refugees." I'm not sure that's entirely correct.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:32 AM on December 14, 2007


You can have the label "nigger" and a society that views you as little more than a pack animal. That's less than nothing.
posted by three blind mice at 2:31 PM on December 14


"Have" referred to money." But you are making my point, the discrimination had a considerably greater economic impact than whether or not the government handed out property over a 2-3 year period.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:34 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


While ofthestrait's comment makes a very good point, you can't really have less than nothing.

But many of the immigrants you're talking about came here and moved into a community of immigrants from the same places who were able and willing to help them out, even if only by providing cheap lodging in some of the worst urban neighborhoods in nyc. freed slaves had some resources, but they did not have the established communities that immigrants had.

also, yes there is a wealth gap between italian, irish and asian immigrants compared to wasps. it is not as wide, but it is there. anyone in staten island, or south boston can tell you that. i seriously hate arguments like this.
posted by shmegegge at 11:34 AM on December 14, 2007


If I recall, one of the problems with the "Forty Acres and Mule" promise is that even if it was carried out, there was not enough territory nor mules for all the freed slaves.
posted by schroedinger at 11:37 AM on December 14, 2007


Pastabagel: CNN now reporting via chyron that the edits have been rolled back and Wikipedia's vandalism crisis has been narrowly averted.
posted by dhartung at 11:41 AM on December 14, 2007


On a related note, I highly recommend the book, The Trouble They Seen, which tells the story of what happened in the South after the end of the Civil War. The stories of the ex-slaves' attempts at family reunification are especially poignant.
posted by etaoin at 11:46 AM on December 14, 2007 [3 favorites]


Just playing devil's advocate, but...
"But many of the immigrants you're talking about came here and moved into a community of immigrants from the same places who were able and willing to help them out"

At some point, someone must have been the first, no? Unless you're arguing that they sent the rich bastards over first, who then set up shop for the poor masses to follow.
posted by Crash at 11:50 AM on December 14, 2007


the first didn't arrive here in chains en masse.
posted by shmegegge at 11:53 AM on December 14, 2007


Reminds me of this.
posted by caddis at 11:53 AM on December 14, 2007


ronald takaki's "a different mirror" is a really good look at american history thru the experiences of different minorities and oppressed groups.

just to digress for a moment on the experiences of immigrants vs the experiences of freed slaves.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:53 AM on December 14, 2007


I think it's difficult to use a "natural experiment" as an indicator of the results of larger, mnore complex situation. It's not merely a question of "what assets did this group start with?". Would a large property owning class of freed slaves have changed the prevailing attitude of society as a whole towards Blacks? Would we have still had Jim Crow laws? If they had all have been given land, would that just have led to more incidents such as Rosewood, Fla.? It should be noted that in the 90's the state of Florida offered compensation to the survivors and descendants of Rosewood Landowners, but the effects of such things can not always be measured monetarily. In our society of assumed equality it's hard to even discuss the psychological effects on a group of people of 400 years of slavery followed by 100 years of second-class citizenship. Is there really a price you can put on that?

To me, the most interesting question is the one of the larger American experiment. Is there a "right" way to make the transition from a nation that holds a certain group of people as Slaves to a nation that doesn't? Can we accept it if the answer is "No, these people are mostly fucked for x number of years"

And yes, I am aware that slavery has existed in many societies, but I don't think it's a great leap to acknowledge the American variety as historically unique.

If you ask me, the answer is simple. This is a nation who's very foundation is stolen land, stolen labor, and an inexcusable crime against humanity. As a result there are basic inequities that can never be undone. We can work around them, and as a nation can succeed in spite of these inequities. Or maybe even because of them. But maybe it's just too deep to just explain it away.
posted by billyfleetwood at 11:56 AM on December 14, 2007 [3 favorites]


"Many of the immigrants arrived totally destitute, having sold whatever they had left from any given war to pay for passage."

Here's an excerpt from John Bodnar's "The Transplanted: A History of Urban Immigrants to America":

"If the lure of America was an overpowering magnet to the impoverished people of the world, emigraton from any country or region would have been essentially a random process draining the lowest elements of society from nearly every geographic area. But emigrants clearly came from some regions and not others. Abundant evidence exists, moreover, to suggest that those departing were not coming from the depths of their respective society but occupied positions somewhere in the middle and lower-middle levels of their social structures. Those too poor could seldom afford to go, and the very wealthiest usually had too much of a stake in the homelands to leave." (page 13)

I don't think it is possible to compare the European immigrant experience to the American freedmen's experience.
posted by ofthestrait at 11:57 AM on December 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


I think folks need to actually read the legislation linked. The Freedmans Bureau was authorized to rent from unused tracts of government owned land, under direction from the President, parcels up to 40 acres in size. Also it says that those who were granted land rights under Sherman's Field Order would not be displaced for three years unless the owner of the land makes a settlement agreement with the occupier.

All of that is a far cry from they are going to give every freed slave 40 acres and a mule. Besides that, the last I checked, General Sherman would have been under the orders of the Commander and Chief, so even if he was a very high ranking officer, he was still outranked by the President. So, between the President being proscribed the direction of the Freedmans Bureau land distribution and able to issue orders above an orders issued in the field by a general, Johnson may have been morally bankrupt, but well within the letter of the law.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:02 PM on December 14, 2007


The 40 acres was not an entitlement as such. It was never "theirs" to begin with, and therefore can't be responsible for the wealth gap between black and white americans. Free blacks before the existence of the Bureau were not entitled to anything

The wealth gap is due to education. Even free blacks were disadvantaged educationally due to discrimination which became much more institutionalized in the South after the Civil War.


Huh? Did you read the summary of the paper? The entire point is that where blacks had been given land, they did much better and continue to do much better to day.

But considering that much of those 40 acres would have been on land taken under questionably legal circumstances from indians makes it ethically difficult to parse out.

I don't see how it could be considered ethically better to leave the land in the hands of the people who stole it and then enslaved people. But in this case, the land was still owned by Indians.
posted by delmoi at 12:06 PM on December 14, 2007


Thinking about it - even if they'd actually distributed the 40 acres and a mule, what do you want to bet that people still would have found a way to make the current wealth gap possible?

American prosperity isn't how much you have - it's how much more you have than your neighbor. They could have given 80 acres, two mules and a cow, and you can bet that the discrimination and racism over the years would have more than made up for it and resulted in arriving at the same place we are today.
posted by cashman at 12:30 PM on December 14, 2007


you can't really have less than nothing

Daddy pay for your school?
posted by srboisvert at 1:01 PM on December 14, 2007


I am using a library machine--mine is down--and so I am not able to get the links etc but this week's issue of New Scientist has an article that dismisses the Gates claim by showing how wrong he is in assembling his arguement--statistically off...the article is convincing and I would advise going to their site for the piece before assuming Gates correct. Gates, in passing, has a book coming out based on this piece, which was extracted for the paper.
posted by Postroad at 1:04 PM on December 14, 2007


Abundant evidence exists, moreover, to suggest that those departing were not coming from the depths of their respective society but occupied positions somewhere in the middle and lower-middle levels of their social structures.

If immigrants were coming here to work menial jobs digging canals, building railroads and doing agricultural work, being in the middle levels of their social structures obviously wasn't very lucrative. Many immigrants were indebted to others for their passage. Charles Crocker imported 10,000 Chinese workers to build the railroad. Irish peasants fled the famine. I don't think it's really possible to make blanket statements about the state of various groups of immigrants to America with any credibility. Chinese immigrants certainly endured horrendous racism in California, segregation, lynchings, the first anti- immigration act passed by Congress- they wer'nt even allowed to own property. Yet somehow a lot of that hardship was overcome very quickly post WWII. This isn't an argument to say "X had it worse than Y"- I'm just pointing out that it's next to impossible to compare various groups and how they did or did not succeed here, and why. It's a staggeringly complex issue.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:22 PM on December 14, 2007


Postroad: from the (short) NS article: "The problem lies in two fundamental mistakes. Take Gates's work. Let's assume that he really has found an unusually high rate of landowning grandparents among successful African Americans (it is not clear that he has, given that the odds of one grandparent among four having owned land are actually quite high). What about land ownership among the grandparents of less successful African Americans? To suggest that property is important, Gates needs to show that a lack of this legacy contributes to normal folk being, well, normal. In epidemiological terms, he needs to run a "case-control study". But, as Harvard political scientist Andrew Eggers puts it, book sales probably wouldn't be helped by the inclusion of "a few chapters about thoroughly unfamous people".

Even if controls are used, subtle problems can still emerge. Built to Last has controls of a kind: it compares stellar firms with the merely ordinary. But the comparison is skewed because it contrasts a rare kind of company - a successful one - with a much more common regular one. As a result, the technique will over emphasise any successful traits it identifies.

An epidemiologist would employ simple mathematics to correct for this problem, but when it comes to the books business people buy at airports, a good read is usually deemed more important than statistical equations and caveats.

"Most of the time these books are just making intuitions," concludes Gary King, a social scientist also at Harvard. "They're like astrology.""
posted by cashman at 2:04 PM on December 14, 2007


I would be curious to see somebody do a similar study including effect of slavery on the freed population in Brazil. It would be interesting to see of what if any correlations could be made.
posted by hexxed at 3:07 PM on December 14, 2007


What about land ownership among the grandparents of less successful African Americans? To suggest that property is important, Gates needs to show that a lack of this legacy contributes to normal folk being, well, normal. In epidemiological terms, he needs to run a "case-control study".

This is true about the genealogy done by Henry Louis Gates. He's collecting family trees from successful African-American celebrities who might not be representative of anybody, let alone African-Americans as a whole. I'd still be interested in his book (which won't come out until April), because it would add depth from primary historical documents that you can't use as much in a quantitative study. Besides, Gates is a literature professor, and he hasn't claimed to be doing sociology. But Melinda Miller's work is completely different in approach from Gates. Miller compares a sample of ex-slaves in the Cherokee Nation (who did get property allocated to them) with census samples of ex-slaves in the rest of the former Confederacy. Unlike Gates, Miller did the hard work of making a comparison between an understudied "experimental" group (former slaves of the Cherokee tribe who got property after the Civil War) and a "control" group (slaves in the rest of the South). That's what I find interesting about her study, and I'm sure she will probably get hired soon by a top department in economics. Grad students have been hired as professors for much less.
posted by jonp72 at 4:38 PM on December 14, 2007


As unremunerated slaves, they had the right to back wages and damages. This was the equivalent of a legislative settlement to a class action suit.

Um ... except for one critical difference. Class action settlements exist to rectify wrongful actions. Prior to their emancipation, the slaves' slavery wasn't illegal. There might be a little grey area during the time period after the official emancipation by the legitimate (read: Northern) government and their actual, de facto emancipation, but prior to that date you don't have much grounds for a 'settlement.' They were lawfully enslaved, as repugnant as that may be to us now. It would have been setting a pretty suspicious (and possibly dangerous) precedent to award someone damages -- and, by doing so, punish someone else -- retroactively, for conduct that was not illegal at the time it was committed.

It's not a cut-and-dry issue at all.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:19 PM on December 14, 2007


It would have been setting a pretty suspicious (and possibly dangerous) precedent to award someone damages -- and, by doing so, punish someone else -- retroactively, for conduct that was not illegal at the time it was committed.

Much of what occurred during slavery was illegal: the beatings, the rapes, the separation of families. Since slaves didn't have legal status, they couldn't sue for their injuries before emancipation, but afterwards... wooboy. I know you think you've got an interesting point here, but tort law doesn't work this way: all you have to show is that there was a duty of care and an injury as a result of not meeting that duty. If you want to talk about precedent in the way you have, consider the massive uncompensated taking that emancipation involved.

That said, most of this is polite legal fiction. There's no such thing as justice when one group of people enslaves another.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:42 AM on December 15, 2007


Um ... except for one critical difference. Class action settlements exist to rectify wrongful actions. Prior to their emancipation, the slaves' slavery wasn't illegal.

I'd like to address more ways in which you're wrong, aside from those that anotherpanacea already addressed.

For slavery to be have been fully legal, it would have required (at a minimum) for all countries involved (including the African ones) to have legalized the kidnapping of their citizens, and the sale of those kidnap victims. Beyond that, all countries involved would need to have legalized the sorts of treatment, work requirements, etc. that were used on the victims of the trade.

While some people in the Southern portion of the United States agreed that all this should be legal, I believe you could find any number of original African governments who would disagree and state that their citizens had been wronged quite egregiously.

I'm not one of those "reparations now!" people, but it's sickening to read somebody who claims that there was no need for damages because one party said it was legal.

By your logic, you should not be able to punish me if I take kidnap your family, take them to an off-shore island, rape your wife and daughter, and force your son to work. After all, on my island, that's all legal. Do you see why you're wrong?
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 9:29 AM on December 15, 2007


Back when I was in high school, I used to want to start a web hosting company called "40 Megs and a Mule" for African-Americans and African-American focus sites. Of course, now "only" 40 MB of storage from your webhost is like paying money to be peed on. 40 Gigs and a mule?
posted by Eideteker at 10:45 AM on December 15, 2007


For slavery to be have been fully legal, it would have required (at a minimum) for all countries involved (including the African ones) to have legalized the kidnapping of their citizens, and the sale of those kidnap victims. Beyond that, all countries involved would need to have legalized the sorts of treatment, work requirements, etc. that were used on the victims of the trade.


We're talking about reparations from the US, in which slavery was legal everywhere until 1863. I don't know why you think it wasn't legal unless Africa said it was OK- since when has that ever been the case with Federal law? At any rate, slavery was legal in Ethiopia until 1935. Slavery in Mauritania has been illegal since 1905, but never criminalised. From Wikipedia:

"In 1807, the UK Parliament passed the Bill that abolished the trading of slaves. The King of Bonny (now in Nigeria) was horrified at the conclusion of the practice:[141]

'We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself.'"

it's sickening to read somebody who claims that there was no need for damages because one party said it was legal.

I don't think that what Kadin2048 was saying there's no need- just that one may not be eligible for back pay &c. for something that was legal at the time. I'm not sure I know enough about these sorts of cases to agree with that, but it's not the same as saying there is "no need".
posted by oneirodynia at 6:02 PM on December 15, 2007


... so I meant to add in the middle up there that: the view of the various countries in Africa as to the legality of slavery was extremely divergent at the time the US was practicing it, and it's not safe to assume that every one of them did not agree with or participate in the trade.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:05 PM on December 15, 2007


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