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Friday, January 23, 2015

American Roulette: The economics of race relations in America

We've all heard of Russian Roulette, but none of us has played it, I hope. But, unfortunately, whether we like it or not, all of U.S. have been playing this other kind of roulette.

It is a game that has big winners and big losers. It is a game of economics or asset building. American white males started the game and eventually American blacks and even the Native Americans got to play. And later, almost as an afterthought, women got to play too.

It is a game not unlike the one played in casinos across the country.

You know the one, where a wheel is spun, a ball is released that bounces around and lands in one slot of the wheel. If the bettor is lucky enough to have his chips in the right slot, he wins big and if he is unlucky enough to have his chips in the wrong slot he loses. Of course, in the casino game, the odds of winning are much higher, 2.63% if you bet the right number and lots of people just bet Red or Black where there is a 47.37% chance of winning.

But in American Roulette, that's not really an option. 

So, here’s how American Roulette has been played throughout history. Land owners owned the casinos. Slave owners had some of the most profitable ones around. Their wealth increased exponentially with slave labor. Others land owners, who had no slaves themselves, came to play. They traded with slave owners, bought their crops and made business deals with them. They may or may not have disapproved of slavery in principle, but they liked how the system worked to create wealth, so for the most part they played along.

And, of course, everyone refused to let slaves play, so slaves never won, and slave owners almost always won BIG.

You know the saying, “The house always wins.” If the house didn’t always win, then the house would go out of business. So, it just makes economic sense. Slavery continued because slavery was profitable. Slavery made slave owners wealthy.

In fact, with American Roulette, many Americans believed that slave owners had an unfair advantage over non-slave owners. So, as our forefathers were figuring out representation and taxation in the federal government, the politicians came up with a compromise. A slave would be legally counted as 3/5 of a person. Politically, it wasn’t a perfect compromise, but at least the slave owners had to pay a little more taxes even if it meant they had a little more pull in the government.

Morally, that’s a whole different story. This country decided (now remember blacks and women were excluded from this decision making process, so we should say, white men decided…) that slaves were not people in the sense that other people were people. They were less human than other people … white men, to be exact. Remember slave owners agreed to this but so did non-slave owners.

Then one day, the powers that be, led by the President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, decided that we shouldn’t be allowed to use people as tokens to play American Roulette any more. Through the Declaration of Independence and the civil war, we were able to finally declare legally that slaves were human beings and must be treated as such.

Great! But now what… The white males in charge didn’t know what to do with the millions of freed slaves. Fortunately, they also had confiscated hundreds of thousands of acres of land from the Confederate states.

So, Lincoln sent his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, to Savannah to meet up with the very successful Major-General, William T. Sherman, to figure it out. “Stanton and Sherman met with 20 men on the evening of Jan. 12. All were ministers or lay leaders from the city’s black churches, and 15 were former slaves. Stanton posed a dozen questions to the group. Asked to draw a distinction between slavery and freedom, 67-year-old Garrison Frazier, a former slave who had been selected to act as spokesman, responded

“Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent.  The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.” (from the University of Maryland)

What they desired sounds eerily similar to the desire of Martin Luther King Jr. and even the desires of many impoverished African-Americans today: the desire to earn a living wage from their labor, to provide for their own needs and have adequate representation in the government and military to protect their interests for the long term success of African-Americans and the country as a whole.
With great discernment, when asked whether they would prefer to live interspersed amongst whites or to live segregated into all-black communities, Frazier spoke for 19 of the 20 men when he responded:

“I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over.” (from the University of Maryland) Little did he know that the prejudice he feared existed throughout the North as well. Sherman himself showed severe prejudice against the freed slaves and refused to have blacks join his army.

But, seeing an opportunity to resolve Lincoln’s concerns and find a way to get rid of the flocks of freed slaves that were following his army, he issued Special Field Order No. 15 four days after the meeting. This order gave up to 40 acres of confiscated Confederate land per freed slave for them to work until such time as the national government gave them the opportunity to purchase the land.
New communities sprung up quickly and as per the Special Order were completely segregated and self-governed. 40,000 ex-slaves were transplanted on 400,000 acres of redistributed land within six months of the meeting.

“And what happened to this astonishingly visionary program, which would have fundamentally altered the course of American race relations? Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South, overturned the Order in the fall of 1865, and, as Barton Myers sadly concludes, ‘returned the land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it’ — to the very people who had declared war on the United States of America. (from

“Even staunch Confederate sympathizers bridled at such injustice. When a federal soldier told Mrs. George J. Kolluck that ex-slaves would be forced to return to work for wages for their former owners, she reported to her son that she answered, ‘very quietly, “this is what your Government calls ‘Freedom’? The injustice to us in robbing us of our property does not begin to compare to the cruelty to the negro himself.” (from the NY Times)

“Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth. After all, one of the principal promises of America was the possibility of average people being able to own land, and all that such ownership entailed. As we know all too well, this promise was not to be realized for the overwhelming majority of the nation’s former slaves, who numbered about 3.9 million. (from

And, so American Roulette was opened briefly to the freed slaves. The house was forced to give each freed slave some of its own stash of chips and welcome them into the game. They had a dream and a promise.

But, within months, during the fall of 1865, the land was returned to its former owners.

Many of the ex-slaves were so limited in their options, that they continued to work the land for former slave owners. Many became sharecroppers limiting their ability to gain wealth and to add insult to injury, their hard work continued to enrich former slave owners. Infuriating.

In the century ahead, laws were written, later called Jim Crow laws, that were designed to provide “separate but equal” resources for blacks and whites, but actually only worked to keep blacks and whites separate. These were a constant reminder to former slaves and their descendants that legally they were second-hand citizens.

In effect, the ex-slaves were given a seat at the Roulette table, but only allowed to place one bet and hope for the best. Maybe one in a 1,000 or one in a 100,000 made the transition from slave to property owner with the ability to achieve the goals that were set out in that ground-breaking meeting with Stanton and Sherman.

One hundred years later, after the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, the laws changed. The descendants of slaves were given protection under the law. Many hurdles still existed though.

And, now American Roulette was opened to all … with one caveat. You could only play with the chips you had. Some descendants of slaves had begun to amass wealth and reach their economic goals despite the huge obstacles they had faced. But, the large majority lived and worked in inner cities and were plagued by poverty.

The other reality is that white males still owned 99.9% of the casinos. And the house always wins.

With only a limited capacity for making money, amassing true wealth was about as likely for the descendant of a slave as the ball landing in the 00 of the Roulette wheel. Some African Americans have hit it big, been successful in business, achieved academic degrees, and amassed wealth for themselves and their descendants.

But, for most, the American Dream remains a fairy tale.

Before you judge the rest of African-Americans, those trapped in poverty, think about the odds. Think about this game that we play, American Roulette. Think about the history that has created a culture and a mindset among impoverished African-Americans that cannot easily be untangled. At every turn, the house has had the advantage. And, at every turn, whites have owned the house.

So, don’t judge African-Americans by the success of whites and ask, “Why can’t they just be like me? I worked hard and found a way to make the system work for me?”

Don’t judge African-Americans by the success of other African-Americans and declare, “We have a black president, black Supreme Court Justice, black leaders in every field. There is no discrimination anymore! They need to quit complaining and get to work!”

In fact, don’t judge African-Americans at all. The Bible is clear, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Mathew 7:1-2)

So, “If we can’t judge them, what should we do?” Glad you asked.

First, stop referring to them as Them. They are Us. And, so some of Us are in this predicament.

Then, We need to walk together through this. We need to begin where it all began and have White leaders and Black leaders, probably from the church or at least those who are community minded and not politically-minded sit down together and make a plan.

Many African-Americans (as well as many whites from all ancestries) have systematically and intentionally been hindered from acquiring wealth. Together there must be a systematic and intentional plan made to undo what can be undone and move forward with what cannot.

It doesn’t help to fight amongst ourselves about it. It’s time to make changes and transform the culture and mindset of our country. It’s time to stop playing American Roulette with its few Big Winners and multitude of Poverty-stricken Losers.

The odds are always in the favor of the house. Who owns the house today?

As, the saying goes, “Follow the money.”

It’s time for all of US to stop playing into the system and start building real wealth. We can’t get side-tracked by racial differences and we need to start to address the injustices of wealth distribution. We need to dream a way for the American Dream to be accessible for all. We need to talk.

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