Dialogs: CHF Panel Explores Racist Corners of American History in What’s Next: Wealth, Property and Inequality
Reported by C.E. Archer-Helke
In a Chicago Humanities Festival panel moderated by Chicago journalist Natalie Moore, economist William Darity, legal scholar Matthew L.M. Fletcher, and historian Rebecca K. Marchiel brought vision in spades, illuminating dark, racist corners of American history and shedding light on ways in which every person can work to make a difference both through hyperlocal and personal actions and larger-scale political ones.
“What’s Next: Wealth, Property, and Inequality,” co-hosted by Chicago’s Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, was both frightfully timeless and incredibly timely after our summer of discontent. The white supremacist policies Darity, Fletcher, and Marchiel discussed began with the US Constitution and even earlier, in colonial policies.
The three panelists brought specific expertise to their talks. Economist Darity spoke about the Black/White wealth differential and its historic roots in slavery, the federal government’s failure to provide formerly enslaved people with land following the Civil War, and its failure to protect Black Americans from racist massacres during the 19th and 20th centuries, including Chicago’s own Red Summer of 1919. Legal scholar Fletcher discussed the ways theft of land and racist policies affected, and continue to affect, Indigenous Americans. Finally, historian Marchiel spoke about redlining, banking regulations, and community activism.
These seemingly disparate threads came together from the session’s first moments—the land given to white colonizers in the American West was, for example, stolen from Indigenous people. (Darity pointed out that some 45 million living white Americans benefited from the Homestead Act and other land grants—a dizzyingly vast number.) Meanwhile, redlined neighborhoods—areas marked, literally, in red as bad or dangerous and then denied mortgages—are, as Fletcher pointed out, generally policed much more violently than upper-income white neighborhoods in the same regions.
The conversation, elegantly moderated by Moore, traveled from racism in the US Constitution to racist application of laws (even the GI Bill was unequal in its application), from sovereignty to citizenship, and from banking regulations to mutual aid. Darity’s discussion of repatriations was clear and easy to follow, included specific numbers and metrics. Marchiel, meanwhile, pointed out that though redlining may no longer officially exist, race-based discrimination in housing certainly does.
The three also discussed the ways in which our conceptualizations of government, and of funding, could be shaken up, changing the country and improving quality of life and equality in America. They also tackled an audience question—what can we do to improve things while we wait for the federal government to make structural changes? Each panelist offered a concrete suggestion, something each one of us can take into the world. Darity encourages us to investigate our family stories, looking into the ways we have benefited from land grants or mortgages, the labor of enslaved people or the discriminatory application of the GI Bill; in addition to advocating for political change. Fletcher suggests that everyone who occupies space in the US—in truth, all of us—research that space, learning about when it moved from Indigenous people to the US government, and what happened then. Marichel encourages us to take a leaf from the community activists she has studied, and either find our local mutual aid organization or start a new one.
Darity, Fletcher, Marchiel, and Moore covered difficult ground in “What’s Next,” ranging from white supremacy in the US Constitution to structural racism in property and across neighborhoods. Yet they finished the conversation on a hopeful note—there’s no reason to wait, after all: we can all do something to improve the country now.
Books written by each panelist:
The Ghost Road: Anishinaabe Responses to Indian Hating by Matthew L.M. Fletcher
After Redlining: The Urban Reinvestment Movement in the Era of Financial Deregulation by Rebecca K. Marchiel
Caitlin Archer-Helke is South-Side-born and raised, hailing from a now-vanished corner of Hyde Park. By day she’s an academic librarian; by night she’s an obsessive reader and researcher, exploring strange historical byways and digging into architectural scandals. She blogs about books, opera, and odd histories at https://essentiallyanerd.