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America’s Problematic History of Valuing Property Over Black Lives

Property rights have been privileged in this country for centuries, often at the expense of Black Americans. It’s time to confront this legacy.

by Jacob Hillesheim
July 1, 2020 | Our Future
Riot police form a line on a Minneapolis street
Riot police block East Lake Street as fire fighters work to contain the smoldering Third Precinct in Minneapolis on May 29, 2020.  |  Credit: James Napoli

On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was killed by white vigilantes in Georgia. No legal action was taken against Arbery's killers for more than two months. 

Three weeks after Arbery's death, police in Louisville, Kentucky, shot and killed EMT Breonna Taylor while executing a no-knock warrant. As of the writing of this article, no charges have been filed against the officers.

On May 25, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes as three other responding officers chose not to intervene.

Yet, for many people, the violent deaths of three Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes did not provoke as visceral a response as did the property damage suffered during nationwide protests over Floyd's death and police brutality.

President Donald Trump spoke three sentences during his nationally televised address about Floyd's killing before spending the next six minutes discussing the restoration of "law and order." In calling in the Minnesota National Guard, Gov. Tim Walz said that "the situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about the murder of George Floyd." Facebook and Twitter, to say the least, remained Facebook and Twitter.

As disappointing as these reactions are, they should not be surprising. The United States has always valued property more than Black lives. 

Embedded in the Constitution

These misplaced priorities actually predate the United States. The first enslaved Africans were brought to North America in 1619. While they were technically "indentured servants," variations in treatment based upon racial differences did not take long to surface. 

When three escaped indentured servants were recaptured in 1640, the two Europeans in the group were sentenced to four additional years of indentured servitude. John Punch, the only Black escapee, was enslaved for life.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the most notorious example of prioritizing economics and property over Black lives. Although some of America's founders were uneasy with slavery, they were also unwilling to condemn it in either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, where property rights were ratified alongside the "three-fifths compromise," which rewarded owning other people with increased representation in the House of Representatives. 

At the Center of the Civil War

Some 70 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court finally addressed the contradiction of slavery in a nation where "all men are created equal." The Dred Scott Decision (1857) formally declared that not only were enslaved Africans property, but even free Black people did not have "rights which the white man was bound to respect."

The case galvanized the abolitionist movement across the United States. Unfortunately, only a portion of the abolitionists was interested in racial equality. For most, ending slavery was enough and for some, abolition was important not because slavery destroyed Black lives, but because it depressed wages for white workers.

As Abraham Lincoln predicted in his 1858 "House Divided" speech ("this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free"), civil war came to the United States. However, it was not brought by a Union fighting for Black lives, but instead by a Confederacy so protective of slavery that it saw rebellion as the best means to preserve it. 

Jim Crow, North and South

After the bloodiest war in American history ended, the slave-owners responsible for it faced no economic consequences beyond having to pay their workers. Meanwhile, the formerly enslaved individuals who had built the nation's wealth were forced to fend for themselves when President Andrew Johnson rescinded their "40 acres and a mule."

After the Civil War, "Radical Republicans" led a short-lived attempt to dismantle white supremacy in the South and create a society of racial equity. Because of Southern opposition and the Civil War's devastating effects on the Southern economy, Reconstruction was only possible with a political and economic commitment from the North. When a massive economic depression hit the U.S. in 1873, Northerners were less willing to finance Reconstruction, trading their concern about the formerly enslaved for their pocketbooks.

Members of the Minnesota National Guard direct traffic away from an active structure fire in Minneapolis on May 29, 2020. REWIRE PBS Our Future Black Lives
Members of the Minnesota National Guard direct traffic away from an active structure fire in Minneapolis on May 29, 2020.  |  Credit: James Napoli

The end of Reconstruction in 1877 led directly to the rise of Jim Crow, enforced by law in the South, by custom in the North, and by white supremacist terror everywhere. Some 4,000 Black Americans were lynched in the years between 1877 to 1950, a period that saw the highest rate of extrajudicial killings in our nation's history. Meanwhile, white Northerners looked away, focusing instead on the prosperous economic times of the "Gilded Age" and the "Roaring Twenties." 

Northern whites were not shy of violence either, as evidenced by "Red Summer" following the end of World War I. Whites attacked Black Americans in dozens of U.S. cities for challenging or threatening their social, political and economic dominance. Two years later, during the Tulsa Race Massacre, 300 Black Americans were murdered by white Tulsans, who, not coincidentally, burned the thriving "Black Wall Street" district to the ground.

The pattern continues today

Although the Civil Rights Movement was successful in ending racial discrimination by law, the effects of slavery and Jim Crow are still widespread, as the institutions, policies and procedures created during earlier periods have led to widespread institutional racism against Black Americans.

This list of historical examples is neither exhaustive nor especially nuanced. It omits both the resistance, perseverance and achievement of Black Americans in spite of white supremacy and a similar history of discrimination against other races, ethnicities, genders and the LGBTQ+ community. 

But it does make clear that for the vast majority of U.S. history, white Americans and the federal government have prioritized property and their own economic well-being over Black lives. Indeed, the former has usually come at the direct expense of the latter.

There are signs this imbalance could be shifting. Although one might reserve the right to be cynical about corporate branding, Minneapolis-based businesses like Birchwood Cafe, Gandhi Mahal, and Target have publicly supported protesters even as they suffered property damage in the unrest following George Floyd's death, often noting that while windows and merchandise can be replaced, human beings cannot.

Reasonable people can disagree about the appropriateness of protest tactics or strategies. Reasonable people can disagree about the proper limits of the right to assemble or the government's police power. But if an AutoZone in flames is the most upsetting moment of the last several months for you, it's time to rethink your priorities.

Jacob Hillesheim
Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator, historian and ice cream enthusiast with master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history.
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