We view $326 billion to be a conservative estimate of the value of Black land loss for multiple reasons. First, we use conservative rates of return on agricultural land in our calculations. Second, due to data limitations, we begin estimating acreage loss in 1920, a full decade after the peak of acreage ownership in 1910. Thus, our estimate does not account for the lost acreage in those first 10 years. Finally, we don’t include other potential benefits to land ownership in our estimate, such as the ability of landowners to have more control over their labor and free time, more access to capital to invest in other business ventures, and more resources to provide access to high-quality education for their children so the next generation could experience upward mobility.
This intergenerational aspect of land wealth is precisely what makes the estimation of historic Black land loss so relevant to discussions of racial wealth gaps today. As a result of having their land stolen from them, many Black landowners lost a valuable tool for wealth creation. Accordingly, while the children and grandchildren of white landowners reaped the benefits of ready access to capital—education, home ownership, and entrepreneurial safety nets—the children and grandchildren of dispossessed Black landowners faced the perils of migrating to inner-city ghettos—crime, poverty, and instability.
Thus, from one generation to the next, the initial racial wealth gap that opened through the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and land theft has grown wider and, without intervention, will continue to widen. To view racial wealth gaps as the result of individual differences in the propensity to save or in portfolio allocations ignores this legacy of state-sanctioned discrimination that limited Black wealth building at the outset and persists today through intergenerational transmission of wealth and through ongoing discriminatory structures in our society.
Finally, this discussion of land ownership and dispossession is intimately related to discussions of property rights, specifically the primacy of property rights over human rights when the humans in question are marginalized, discriminated against, and otherwise dehumanized. To emphasize property rights in contemporary policy discussions, especially when simultaneously de-emphasizing the human rights of marginalized communities, without discussing the historical context of the way that property came to be distributed is immoral and only serves to amplify injustice.