New York Times Op-Ed Contributor
Forty Acres and a Gap in Wealth
By HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr.
Published: November 18, 2007
LAST week, the Pew Research Center published the astonishing finding that 37 percent of African-Americans polled felt that “blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race” because of a widening class divide. From Frederick Douglass to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most fundamental assumption in the history of the black community has been that Americans of African descent, the descendants of the slaves, either because of shared culture or shared oppression, constitute “a mighty race,” as Marcus Garvey often put it.
“By a ratio of 2 to 1,” the report says, “blacks say that the values of poor and middle-class blacks have grown more dissimilar over the past decade. In contrast, most blacks say that the values of blacks and whites have grown more alike.”
The message here is that it is time to examine the differences between black families on either side of the divide for clues about how to address an increasingly entrenched inequality. We can’t afford to wait any longer to address the causes of persistent poverty among most black families.
This class divide was predicted long ago, and nobody wanted to listen. At a conference marking the 40th anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous report on the problems of the black family, I asked the conservative scholar James Q. Wilson and the liberal scholar William Julius Wilson if ours was the generation presiding over an irreversible, self-perpetuating class divide within the African-American community.
“I have to believe that this is not the case,” the liberal Wilson responded with willed optimism. “Why go on with this work otherwise?” The conservative Wilson nodded. Yet, no one could imagine how to close the gap.
In 1965, when Moynihan published his report, suggesting that the out-of-wedlock birthrate and the number of families headed by single mothers, both about 24 percent, pointed to dissolution of the social fabric of the black community, black scholars and liberals dismissed it. They attacked its author as a right-wing bigot. Now we’d give just about anything to have those statistics back. Today, 69 percent of black babies are born out of wedlock, while 45 percent of black households with children are headed by women.
How did this happen? As many theories flourish as pundits — from slavery and segregation to the decline of factory jobs, crack cocaine, draconian drug laws and outsourcing. But nobody knows for sure.
I have been studying the family trees of 20 successful African-Americans, people in fields ranging from entertainment and sports (Oprah Winfrey, the track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee) to space travel and medicine (the astronaut Mae Jemison and Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon). And I’ve seen an astonishing pattern: 15 of the 20 descend from at least one line of former slaves who managed to obtain property by 1920 — a time when only 25 percent of all African-American families owned property.
Ten years after slavery ended, Constantine Winfrey, Oprah’s great-grandfather, bartered eight bales of cleaned cotton (4,000 pounds) that he picked on his own time for 80 acres of prime bottomland in Mississippi. (He also learned to read and write while picking all that cotton.)
Sometimes the government helped: Whoopi Goldberg’s great-great-grandparents received their land through the Southern Homestead Act. “So my family got its 40 acres and a mule,” she exclaimed when I showed her the deed, referring to the rumor that freed slaves would receive land that had been owned by their masters.
Well, perhaps not the mule, but 104 acres in Florida. If there is a meaningful correlation between the success of accomplished African-Americans today and their ancestors’ property ownership, we can only imagine how different black-white relations would be had “40 acres and a mule” really been official government policy in the Reconstruction South.
The historical basis for the gap between the black middle class and underclass shows that ending discrimination, by itself, would not eradicate black poverty and dysfunction. We also need intervention to promulgate a middle-class ethic of success among the poor, while expanding opportunities for economic bettermen
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard, is the author of the forthcoming “In Search of Our Roots.”