The Legacy of Land Theft and its Impact on BIPOC Community Wealth
- Essential Common Future
Part of Our February Spotlight on Land, Wealth, and Ownership
Wealth is more than capital. It’s community resources, social networks, and physical assets that keep businesses operating. And one of the largest generators of wealth is land.
Land appreciates in value over time and can be put to multiple wealth-creating uses: farmland, housing, commercial property and more. According to Bloomberg, property ownership generates about as much wealth as stock market investments, and lack of property ownership is one of the main drivers of inequality in the U.S. For centuries, racist systems have denied certain communities continuous land ownership. This prevents communities not just from accruing wealth, but crucially, passing that wealth down to future generations.
In the U.S., Black and Indigenous communities have experienced centuries of wealth stripping through racist policies, both legal and informal. Since the first slave ships from Africa arrived at U.S. ports, carrying stolen people to work stolen Indigenous land, the theft of land from Black and Indigenous people has been intertwined. At the root of this theft are systemic racism and white supremacy. And just as both these communities have faced those oppressions for centuries, both have resisted and at times prevailed over the resulting land theft.
Treaties and Indigenous Land
Treaties were the main mechanism of this theft. Nearly 370 were signed between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, each negotiated with individual tribes and promising to preserve large swaths of land for those communities. In every case, white settlement and overt violence, either initiated or tacitly approved by the government, shrank or eliminated the territories allocated to Indigenous people. And in every case, those communities resisted the theft, which often resulted in violent, deadly removal from their lands.
By 1887, Indigenous reservations covered 138 million acres of land. Over the next fifty years, that land had shrunk to 48 million acres, due largely to the Homestead and Allotment Acts. These gave any farmer who built and lived in a house on a 160-acre land parcel for five years ownership of that parcel. Because the program was aimed at white settlers, and not all Indigenous people chose to farm the land they lived on, this allotted millions of acres to white farmers.
With the introduction of enslavement to the continent, Black people became enmeshed in this theft. Their forced labor enriched the descendents of the first settlers. In 1865, shortly after Congress passed the 13th Amendment, the U.S. government ordered restitution for survivors of enslavement in the form of at least forty acres of tillable land. By June of that year, 400,000 acres of land had passed into Black hands. But much like the Indigenous treaties, this promise quickly evaporated when President Andrew Johnson, a supporter of the Confederacy, overturned the order, took much of the land, and gave it to former slaveholders.
Black Farmers and Black Wealth
Still, the following decades saw Black wealth grow as Black farmers bought up land whenever they could. By 1910, Black farmers held 20 million acres; by 1920, about 14 percent of U.S. farmers were Black. This did not last long. Beginning with the New Deal, during which the USDA denied loans to Black farmers, the U.S. government began systematically stripping these farmers of their property — not by seizing it, but by making it financially impossible for Black people to hold onto their assets. Racist voting practices allowed for the easy passage of laws that weakened or eliminated Black asset-holding. Redlining similarly denied Black communities access to homeownership.
It’s difficult to estimate the financial impact of this theft. The land denied to Black farmers during Reconstruction would be valued at $3.1 billion today. The land stolen from Indigenous people covers the entirety of North America, a territory so large that its monetary value is incalculably large. Assessing the value of the physical land also doesn’t reflect the wealth that could have been accrued by farming and leasing that land.
But the long-term impacts are clear: the net wealth of the average Black family is ten percent of the average white family; for Indigenous families, that number is 8 percent. While 75 percent of white families own homes, less than half of Black families and just over half of Indigenous ones do. Accordingly, movements for reparations for both communities have explicitly acknowledged that land, not just cash, is key to rebuilding community wealth.
In recent years, the Land Back movement to return land to its original Indigenous stewards has seen a number of victories. A mostly-symbolic 2020 Supreme Court ruling recognized the ancestral homelands of the Muscogee Nation, although it did not actually return their land. The year before, the Maidu community in California reclaimed over 2000 acres from private electrical company PG&E, one of several instances of small parcels being physically returned to their rightful stewards. Increasing numbers of settlers are paying a land tax to the original inhabitants of the lands where they now live, funds which in some cases are used to purchase land parcels for tribal stewardship.
The same goes for Black land reparations. In 2020, the Justice for Black Farmers bill was introduced in the House and passed out of committee, although it has not yet advanced to a full vote. Last year, Evanston, IL became the first US city to institute a reparations program, which it is administering via housing. Most recently, the Bruce family regained land in Los Angeles stolen from their ancestors a century ago, which has sparked wider interest in returning land to families in similar situations.