Racial Justice and the Role of Government

 

Each person should be treated as an individual, with individual rights, instead of being viewed merely as a member of a group.  

In the history of this country, government policies have played a major role in causing racial conflict between black and white Americans, and also the main role in the treatment of Native Americans.  

In the case of Native Americans, the British government, and later the United States government, used military force to help American colonists take land from the people who had been living here for centuries before immigrants from Europe arrived. The British were used to a system of land titles with clearly marked boundaries, but that was different from the Native Americans they encountered. A common practice among many of the tribes was to distinguish between two different kinds of property: things that a person produced, such as a tool, were considered that person’s property; but the view was that each person in the tribe had a right of access to land, which none of them had produced, and was seen as being given to all of them.  

In a court case in the late 1800s, the Omaha tribe was being sued for trespassing on some vacant land. The tribe argued that wild animals were allowed to wander onto that vacant land, to obtain food there, so it made no sense to the Omaha tribe that they could not also enter that vacant land and do likewise.  

Sometimes treaties were made regarding land, but the government often did not enforce them, and the treaties were usually violated. The conflicts over land led eventually to either destroying some tribes or forcefully removing them to reservations, on land that was far from prime quality. The tribes are theoretically supposed to be self-governing on the reservation lands, but the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs tends to interfere.

 

Just as the federal and state governments have violated the rights of Native Americans, government has been a major factor in causing conflicts between blacks and whites.  

The first major blow against black people in this country was when the American colonies were under British laws that allowed slavery, including being brought here against their will and forced to be enslaved. Then after the colonies obtained independence from England, when the U.S. Constitution was written it still allowed legal slavery. And the laws stated that runaway slaves would be returned to the slave owners.  

But an exception was the state of Massachusetts, which actually allowed a runaway slave to have a trial by  jury. The authors of the U.S. Constitution had made clear that a jury has the right to free a defendant if the jury finds that the particular law involved is unjust or wrongly applied. Juries in Massachusetts routinely freed runaway slaves, deciding that slavery is unjust.  But in most states a runaway slave did not get a jury trial, and runaway slaves who were captured were forced to return to the slave owners.  

Even after slavery was ended in this country, for many decades blacks were not allowed to serve on juries, just as they were not allowed to vote. And in some cases, instead of selecting jurors at random as they’re supposed to be, there have been cases where a jury was illegally packed with all white jurors in the trial of a black person, or the trial of a white person who had violated a black person’s rights.

 

When the U.S. finally abolished slavery, some prominent people called for giving 40 acres of land to each family of freed slaves. But that wasn’t done. So, even though the slaves were freed, they had no property, and as a result, that made them dependent on having to accept whatever work they were offered by white Americans. By starting out without owning any property, they were beginning at a significant disadvantage. That also played a role in further racial conflict with whites, especially southern whites who also didn’t own land in states where large plantation owners dominated, and other whites were competing for some of the same jobs as landless blacks. Seeing blacks as competitors who were “taking their jobs” led to seeing them as a group rather than as individuals, and led to racial conflict.  

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the role of land access in its relation to racial strife and poverty: “An intelligent approach to the problems of poverty and racism will cause us to see the words of the Psalmist – The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – are still a judgment upon our use and abuse of the wealth and resources with which we have been endowed.”  

For well over a hundred years, some prominent authors and economists have proposed that a modern way to make land affordable for everyone is by means of a practical reform which since the late 1800s has been applied in dozens of cities around the world, including about 20 cities in the U.S. since the early 1900s. That reform works by using incentives to put a limit on land speculation (a major force that drives up the price of land), and removing taxes on buildings (because building taxes raise the cost of housing and other buildings), so instead of taxes on buildings, public goods can be funded by means of a tax on the location value of land, which provides an incentive for land speculators to either put their land to use to make housing available or for job creation, or sell it to someone who will. That policy can include a standard deduction so that most small homeowners would owe very little tax.  

That kind of policy could have also helped In the years leading up to civil rights laws that ended Jim Crow segregation laws. There were many cases where, for example, restaurants would not serve black customers. It might be pointed out that, if land had been affordable to everyone by means of the practical reform just described, then blacks could have opened their own restaurants and run some of the bigots out of business.

 

Even though slavery had been ended,  Jim Crow laws involved forced segregation. Yet after those laws were finally ended in the late 1960s, the legacy of forced segregation led to some effects that still linger. Many decades of forced segregation resulted in somewhat separate cultures of blacks and whites, often with limited interaction with each other, many seeing the others as unfamiliar and foreign to them.

Also, even after Jim Crow laws were abolished, federal government policy still promoted segregation in a different way, through government “redlining” of neighborhoods for housing loans, which further encouraged segregation, sponsored by the federal government.

As a result of such government policies, there are still many basically segregated neighborhoods. Along with the history of government policies that have caused blacks to start out behind economically, and policies which have promoted segregation, there has been a related history of conflicts between police and largely black neighborhoods. In order to address those problems, there need to be police reforms, as well as reforms that address the root causes of economic problems and extreme inequality. (See the DFC website essay on The Proper Role of Police, and the essay on Poverty and Inequality: Caused by Government Favoritism.)

Besides the point that blacks in this country were forced to start out behind economically, there are also government policies that tend to favor those who are already middle income or wealthy  – such as tax subsidies to land speculators and major land owners, special favors to certain kinds of companies or industries, some monopolistic kinds of licensing laws, and policies that continue to be obstacles to affordable housing .Those who were not already middle income or wealthy are further hindered by those special interest policies, so that many black people are affected.

 

Due to the many decades of segregation promoted by government, leading to somewhat separate cultures between blacks and whites, it might be said that some of the conflicts and mistrust between blacks and whites are about the resulting cultural separation. But there are ways that some people have overcome that barrier, to some extent. For example, there are musical groups with blacks and whites in the same group – the musicians are sharing something in common, playing music together. There are also other examples of clubs and organizations where different people together, black and white, are sharing interests and values that they have in common, where that commonality can be a bond.

But any examination of racial justice issues needs to bear in mind the government policies that have promoted racial conflict in this country, including government promotion of segregation and cultural separation; the government history of preventing black families from having access to affordable land; the failure of some judges to uphold a genuine trial by jury; policies that favor special interests, causing poverty and inequality; the need to address police reform; and the need to treat each person as an individual, with individual rights, instead of being viewed merely as a member of a group.  

 

Each policy essay is based on an interpretation of a way to apply the DFC Principles. Except where indicated by the author’s name, the policy essays are written by representatives of the Democratic Freedom Caucus.

 

 

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