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Robin Adams Cheeley: Dear white hard-working man: You didn’t make it alone

Robin Adams Cheeley: Dear white hard-working man: You didn’t make it alone

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Dear hard-working white men who wrote me, often using some choice four-letter words, after my column on reparations:

Thank you for sharing your stories of how you’ve toiled and travailed to get to where you are and don’t understand why others can’t do the same. I think you missed the point. It’s not that Black men and women haven’t worked hard, but the rules were designed so we wouldn’t and couldn’t win. And those decisions are still having repercussions. Let me share a little of what I mean.

About a dozen years after the Civil War, when Black people in the South made significant gains, even comprising a majority in the South Carolina legislature, Southern white supremacists, known as “Redeemers,” decided this majority of Black citizens may mean the death of their white way of life. As a result, they devised a number of rules designed to bar Black citizens from voting and serving in public office or on juries. These rules also defined the kind of work Black people could do.

The Redeemers created a new system of involuntary servitude that punished Black men, women and even children for violating Black Codes. These codes in part required Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers to sign annual labor contracts with white landowners. If they refused, they could be arrested and forced into labor. The Black Codes also fined Black people if they worked in any occupation other than farming or domestic servitude.

According to “Slavery by Another Name,” by Douglas Blackmon, Black convicts, many of them convicted for the crime of being unemployed, were leased out to private corporations. Those corporations then forced them to work in coal mines, turpentine factories and lumber camps. The “convicts,” who could never work long enough to pay their court fines or complete their sentences, were forced to live in squalid conditions, chained, beaten, flogged and sexually violated. They died by the thousands from injury, disease and torture.

States got enormous sums of money from the leased convicts and other Black people were forced to follow the Black Codes or risk being part of what came to be known as “chain gangs.”

“Every Southern state leased convicts, and at least nine-tenths of all leased convicts were Black,” Blackmon wrote.

So, while they were “free,” Black people were still frightened and forced to follow strict rules of behavior or risk being convicted of minor and petty crimes and forced back into slave labor.

And if that wasn’t enough, the New Deal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 introduced many worker protections such as the 40-hour work week, banned child labor and created a minimum wage. But those working on farms and in domestic jobs were excluded. The Black workers, who’d been forced by the Black Codes to work in these occupations, or risk being arrested and convicted, were now being penalized for the types of jobs they held.

Those Black workers who left the South for work up North also found that they were pegged into certain occupations. And while there were no laws prohibiting Black people from joining unions, which tended to offer higher-paying jobs, Black people were generally hired as strikebreakers or blocked from entire trades such as pipe-fitters or plumbers, writes Isabel Wilkerson in her book “Caste.”

Many people gained wealth by owning land. Not an option for some Black citizens. The Land Act of 1785 allowed Congress to transfer wealth to citizens, sometimes just by the luck of the draw, but only if you were white.

Much of white middle-class wealth was built by the GI Bill, which provided benefits in education, employment, entrepreneurship and housing. But most of these benefits were overwhelmingly directed toward white GIs. Black soldiers were limited to where they could buy houses, as covenants prohibited Black people from living in certain neighborhoods. They were restricted as well in which colleges they could attend, as those in the South were segregated.

“It was a government policy, and to some extent literal government giveaways, that provided whites the finance, education, land and infrastructure to accumulate and pass-down wealth,” a 2019 article in MarketWatch noted. “In contrast, Blacks were largely excluded from these wealth-generating benefits."

"When they were able to accumulate land and enterprise," the article said, "it was often stolen, destroyed or seized"  through "theft, fraud and terror," often with government complicity.

Think Tulsa Race Massacre.

But there’s more. The 1935 Social Security Act, which has been how most people live through retirement, originally excluded agricultural laborers and domestic servants — a pool that included 60% of the nation’s Black population at the time. This exclusion existed until 1954. While whites had pensions to support themselves in old age, Black seniors survived by living off the next generation.

Instead of that generation building wealth, they were supporting their parents.

So, you see, it’s not that Black men and women haven’t worked. It’s just that the policies were designed so we wouldn’t get ahead. I haven’t even gotten into redlining, inferior education systems, discrimination, voter intimidation and the fact that today, Black women earn 61 cents to every dollar earned by a white man.

I’m not knocking your work, but just know you didn’t do it alone. Local, state and national policies helped you all along the way.

That’s what we didn’t get. That's what’s owed to us now.

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