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Racism and the Land

Some say racism was invented to try to justify displacing one group of people – Native Americans – from the land and enslaving another group of people to work it. Racism may be more complicated than that, but it has been closely connected to land issues from the very beginning.

After slavery ended in the U.S., there were proposals to provide each freedman with “forty acres and a mule.” But instead slavery’s conditions were virtually recreated with the sharecropping system in which black farmers paid a share of their crop to white land holders.  Another alternative would have been to treat the land as a commons that benefitted everyone equally, regardless of race, by having the land held in trust and rented to the farmers. With the collected land rent, the trust could have provided schools, health care, and other public services to farmers and their families.

During the “Great Migration” of the 20th century, black families streamed from the south into northern industrial cities in search of better opportunities. Urban land there was racially segregated through overt means but also through individual and institutional concerns with “property values,” which referred to the value of the land under houses.

Today, there’s increasing recognition that the wealth gap between white and non-white households is due in large part to differences in “home equity,” which again means the value of the land beneath homes.  Efforts to address this gap have largely involved trying to provide more home loans to non-white home buyers.

Unfortunately, because the price of land portion of real estate is more volatile than the building portion, financing the land portion of homes at the wrong point in the real estate cycle can lead to foreclosure or, at the very least, being underwater on a mortgage.

Again, a commons-based approach would have led to better results. Under a Municipal Land Trust, homeowners could have title to houses but rent the underlying land from the trust in lieu of property taxes. Then homeowners can gain equity from paying down the loan on the house but avoid the volatility that comes with financing the land portion of the home.

It’s said that racism is bigotry combined with power and that institutional racism leads to racially disparate results even in the absence of overt discrimination. Our land tenure system is one of the most powerful institutions that produces such results. It’s time to take commons-based approaches to land issues so those results can be undone.

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