Forty acres and a mule: a promise made by a military general at war, without any true authority behind it. Removed from our present time by over a century and a half of complicated history, yet still a rallying cry for those who understandably wish to see justice done for our nation’s dark slaveholder past. Is this dream even capable of becoming a reality?
The most often cited version of the reparations promise involves giving 40 acres of land and a mule to each family of former slaves who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, an act which was finally enforced by the defeat of the Confederacy at the end of the American Civil War. Freedom came for these slaves. However, the land and their beasts of burden did not.
Today, the specter of this unfulfilled promise still casts a shadow over race and inequality in the United States. Going into the 2020 Presidential Elections, we are still seeing candidates being asked if they support the fulfillment of the reparations promise. Yet, no one is talking about the realities of exactly how this would be done.
One of the main issues with equality today is the discussion of “generational wealth.” Given the extremely racist policies in the majority of the U.S., for the majority of its history, it was difficult for many peoples viewed as the “other” to earn fair compensation for their work or to even own their own land, let alone being granted basic human rights. The 40 acres and a mule promise was meant to give these freed families a jump-start to help them catch up to their white peers. It is undeniable that this never appeared. The question is: What does this unfulfilled promise mean today?
Let’s forego the discussion of the beast of burden and focus on the real value proposition in this discussion: the forty acres of land. If these plots of land are determined to have been lawfully guaranteed to every family of freed slaves, then what? How does one prove that they descended from former slaves? What sort of genealogies will be accepted as proof? Will there be some sort of DNA test? How will we determine who is descended from people who were slaves at the time of the promise?
If reparations were due at a familial level, how many times will that 40 acres have to be divided for each person from each successive generation since? Will any individual entitled to this plot of land get anything more than a fragment of a football field? Will property taxes that should have been paid on this land be collected all at once?
How do we factor in calamities like the Great Depression, which caused massive losses on privately owned land? Do we pretend like this didn’t happen?
And what land do we even discuss as being available for reparation? Government-held land, which is the property that belongs to the American people as a whole? The seizure of privately-held lands? If so, do we penalize those who descended from slave owners only? In that case, would we penalize people like Sen. Kamala Harris?
We still have a way to go in this country when it comes to race, but this solution seems like an idealistic pipe dream with no grounding in reality.