The issue of reparations for the sin of American slavery will work its way into the national debate this election year.
Instead of arguing how it is ethical to tax a poor Mexican American woman and give her money to Tiger Woods, let’s talk about reparations that could work if progressives would accept them.
We know of the broken promise to give emancipated slaves 40 acres and a mule. Of course, this “promise” was never passed by Congress or by presidential executive order. It was a wartime military order by Gen. William Sherman. But still the promise has worked its way into our collective lore of reparations.
It is fascinating that the image of “40 acres and a mule,” rather than a fixed sum of cash, has anchored itself as the accounting baseline for what enslaved families should have received. Sherman’s order never included a guaranteed amount of land per family and made no mention of a mule.
So, why is “40 acres and mule” rather than some dollar amount wedged in our national conscience? Because it pairs with our American value of empowerment through self-reliance rather than dependency.
“40 acres and a mule” represents opportunity, not an assured outcome. It only promises the very basic tools needed for an emancipated family to survive — fields to work with a mule to plow.
In this portrait there is no guarantee of cash or success, only a vague hope of the income a family needs after crops are successfully sown, tended, harvested and brought to market.
If there were to be a modern version of “40 acres and a mule,” what would it be? Certainly not a lump sum payment, but instead some basic tools needed for a chance to thrive.
Let’s offer up a few modern substitutes.
“40 acres” was a promise of a place to live, a physical asset to leverage into security. The modern equivalent is called home ownership, the key to most Americans’ net worth.
Today’s obstacle for minority home ownership is no longer so-called red lining, the practice of denying loans to people in the “bad part” of town. Nor is today’s issue a lack of access to capital. Mortgage rates are at all-time lows and FHA loans allow low down payments.
Minority homeownership rates are low because home prices are so artificially high. That is a direct result of so-called smart growth policies like urban growth boundaries and restrictive zoning, which limit the supply of homes and jack up the values of those of us who do own homes.
It’s why the few minorities who live in my oh-so-tolerant, lily-white hometown of Boulder, are mostly in subsidized rentals.
There is no reason to cap home building except to artificially drive up prices and keep poor people from realizing the American dream. About 97% of land in the U.S. is undeveloped.
Reparations are clear and achievable. “Smart-growth” and growth boundaries are racist. End them so descendants of slaves can own homes.
The promised mule was a means of locomotion in 1865, the way to transport oneself and one’s goods. The modern-day equivalent is a car or truck. Poor people don’t need a bus pass. They need a car. People who are transit dependent are second-class citizens condemned to living and working only where government deems to provide their limited, slow, and infrequent service.
Now is the time to disrupt this racist system of government-owned, one-size-fits-no-one mass transit.
The money that goes to transit should be given directly to transit dependent people, mostly minorities, so they can purchase their cars and trucks allowing them to live where they like, work where they like, deliver their children to the schools and doctors they like, you know, like white people do.
And speaking of schools, our greatest racist institution is government-delivered education. Education by ZIP code might work if you’re in the nice ZIP code. Minorities rarely are.
After World War II, the GI Bill provided returning vets a college education, in the public or private institution of their own choice. It lifted families out of poverty. Poor families today deserve the same for their kid’s education. Real school choice, public or private.
It’s time for the reparations of home ownership, mobility and education by ending the barriers created by progressive governmental bigotry.
Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute.