Discriminatory land use policies have left a legacy of inequality that has yet to be rectified. Though the labor of slaves and later sharecroppers helped support American agriculture, African Americans were often denied access to land as well as to many of the processes of wealth accumulation that allowed the concentration of capital necessary to support a farm. For example, practices of red-lining, managed by the Homeowners Loan Corporation, ranked neighborhoods and prevented the black homeowner from acquiring the same line of credit and advantageous mortgage terms. On top of this economic isolation, racially restrictive covenants maintained a physical separation. Many deeds still include clauses on race, specifically forbidding black, Jewish, or Asian families from owning the home. These are the mechanisms that met black migrants moving from the South to the North in order to escape the oppression of sharecropping. Northern manufacturing cities actively recruited young black males. Once in these cities, they were pushed into poorly maintained parts of the city. For decades, the presumed inability of blacks to assimilate and follow the concentric model of social mobility by which other minorities began life in the inner city but steadily moved out toward the suburb, was blamed on the black population and a “culture of poverty.” It wasn’t until a 1945 publication entitled Black Metropolis by Drake and Cayton that scholars began to acknowledge the institutionalization of racism that created both economic and geographic inequities. Not only did the government have its hand in persistent poverty but it, along with big business, also had its hand in dispossessing African Americans of land.
The National Black Farmers Association is still fighting to gain recognition for the discrimination faced by the black farmer. In what The New York Times calls the “biggest civil rights settlement in American history,” black farmers won a settlement of $2 billion as payment for subsidies and loans that had been denied them due to racism. That class-action suit was in 1999 and the payments have yet to be made. President Obama has requested that payments be included in the new budget and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has stated his commitment to righting this wrong. But, as the February 7th New York Times editorial details, this same budget proposal was included and denied last year. The National Black Farmers Association is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Its president, John W. Boyd Jr. led a rally in Washington D.C. today as the end of a string of rallies held across the South. He is asking that the outstanding $1.15 billion be included in the budget.
Clearly, the struggle for civil rights is far from over. The phrase “forty acres and a mule” stands as a reminder of our unfulfilled promise. It is a promise of a land that is my land, your land. It is a promise where the mountaintop meets the farm.