“Black Wall Street,” and why I’m sick of hearing about “intergenerational wealth.”

With the way folks talk about Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street,” it’s easy to forget that most Black people in Greenwood didn’t own any wealth. We hear a lot about how “the dollar circulated in Greenwood,” but never how the dollars got there. The Black economic doyen of Greenwood made their money from selling goods and services to the masses of Black people who lived and worked in Tulsa. But where did the masses of wealth-less Black people who funded Black Wall Street get the money to buy these goods and services? 

One downside to the way most folk talk about Black business, and particularly the way folks imagine urban Black communities full of Black owned storefronts, is they ignore that it’s impossible to run a self-sustaining economy on retail and storefronts. The dollar can’t circulate forever. As soon as the ice cream parlor has to get resupplied, the dollar flows to whomever owns the cows. So since there’s a constant outflow of cash, where does the inflow come from? In Tulsa it came from Whites. Tulsa was and is an oil town and the vast majority of the masses of wealth-less Black folks in Tulsa either worked for the White oilmen directly, for the businesses that sprung up to serve the White oilmen, or as domestic servants for Whites.

19 year old Dick Rowland’s arrest on the false charge of assaulting a White woman led to the confrontation that led to the 1921 massacre. Dick Rowland, who worked shining White men’s shoes in downtown Tulsa, was accused on the job. Had Greenwood been able to afford young Mr. Rowland a job that didn’t involve serving White men on the White side of town, the precipitating event of the Greenwood massacre would never have happened.

Now obviously, the discredit for the massacre belongs only to the White mob and the brutish humanoid creatures that made it up. What Rowland’s story shows, however, is that for all the master of the universe pretensions Black businessmen in Greenwood could afford, the masses of Black folk were only slightly less economically subjugated than their Southern relatives in places like Greenwood, Mississippi, where you got your wages from a White man and gave them right back to a White man. And when the White capitalist system on which all classes of Black Greenwood depended decided things in Greenwood had gotten out of hand, it crushed them all together.

Dick Rowland’s story also highlights the reality of “intergenerational wealth.” As America commemorates 100 years since the Greenwood horror, we’ve heard a lot about Black businessmen in Greenwood who lost businesses and property that might have turned into intergenerational wealth. Considering the American system of values, it’s natural, if disturbing, that the murder of hundreds of human beings would be reduced to a handy way of explaining the massive gap in wealth between Black families and White families. Yes, the explanation is sound: for centuries, every effort Black folks have made to create prosperity for ourselves has been eviscerated to serve White supremacy. And also yes: The very manufacturers and architects of our poverty are the ones who use it as evidence of our alleged racial inferiority. But, we are only being mocked for our violently enforced “failure,” to live up to the standards of a fundamentally unjust society, our failure to rise from exploited to exploiter in a system of economics that depends on having someone to exploit. Not only is our treatment under this system unjust, this system and the way it distributes resources is unjust.

One of the worst habits we could ever cultivate as a people would be to attack White supremacy while giving the White man credit for an otherwise just ordering of the world; to know that we must kill racism, while accepting all the White man’s other lies as the word of a master we dare not resist. To do so would be beneath us, beneath our history and beneath our potential. This world thieving Europeans have built is injustice piled heavily upon injustice and we must excavate it all or live under its burden forever. Once you see past the lie that capitalism is the natural order of things rather than a new form of existence that has defiled, cheapened, sickened and atrophied all others; it becomes clear that everything about it, and all the institutions White supremacy has imposed upon us as African people, must be escaped

We must then ask ourselves: What is intergenerational wealth and is it just? Since “intergenerational,” is just a fancy word for “hereditary,” in this context, we’re really asking: Is hereditary wealth just? Or, to ask ourselves a Black Wall Street specific question: Would Dick Rowland, who’d narrowly avoided being publicly butchered, have left any intergenerational wealth even if Greenwood hadn’t burnt? Probably not. Shining shoes typically doesn’t leave a lot left over for investment.

If Dick Rowland has any living children, grandchildren or great grandchildren, they’re probably poor, because poverty is inherited just like wealth. His descendants would have inherited intergenerational poverty despite the fact that the wealth of Greenwood’s elite was built on the backs of Black folks who made their living, serving racist Whites. The idea of Greenwood is an idea of Black autonomy, the truth of Greenwood is a subjugated Black community that produced wealth for a subordinated Black elite in exchange for the relatively small pleasure of getting to pass their few dollars into Black hands. While these workers surely and justifiably enjoyed getting to spend their leisure hours, buy their groceries and rent their rooms without the miserable racial subjugation of Jim Crow mores; if we are to understand Black Wall Street and finally build prosperity for all of our people rather than wealth for a few; if what we are to build is to be resilient and stand strong against the mob and its more insidious 21st century descendants, we must develop a deeper understanding of what prosperity looks like and what it means.

 Greenwood played by the rules of an unjust society not because its business elite was malicious, but because those were the rules an unjust society taught them. The same way we recognize that our ancestors organized “blue vein societies,” and sold skin lightening cream to each other because they lived in a world built on the White man’s lies and had internalized these lies much as a fish internalizes water; we must use our accumulated wisdom to recognize that building Black shadows of White society is only a knock off version of freedom, and an unstable one at that.

Intergenerational wealth is hereditary wealth and hereditary wealth is built on the oppressor’s lie that it makes sense for some people to be born rich while others are born chained in poverty. Every day, of every week, of every month, of every year, of every decade, of every century; untold riches of human potential get hurled into oblivion because the potential was born into the wrong mind, the wrong body, the wrong place. 

“Intergenerational wealth,” has snuck up on us as the new buzzword, the oppressor’s acceptable diagnosis and treatment for our collective ills. All White supremacy and Black suffering can be boiled down to a lack of intergenerational wealth, they say, so we must read all our suffering and all our solutions through this lens. 

This ignores that intergenerational wealth is just one manifestation of White supremacy and that one can not make us economically equal with the White man under this capitalist system without replacing us with another group that can be exploited to produce the surplus necessary for the White community’s wealth.

It’s commonly said that to succeed in White institutions as a Black African you have to work “twice as hard to get half as far.” This captures how the prosperity Whites have can’t exist without our subjugation. We often talk as if the value of the double labor we do for half as much payout is just evaporating into thin air, as though Whites proverbially reward us at .25 cents on the dollar out of pure malice. But if I’m producing twice as much for half as much, where’s the other 75 cents going? It’s going into the White man’s pockets.

This may seem obvious, but if it were, it would be impossible to explain why people think we can attain the White man’s level of prosperity under this system in any way that leaves the system as it basically is. If the White man starts giving us the whole dollar to make us equal, we’ll have to do half as much work. But work is the only way wealth gets created, someone has to turn raw materials into finished products and time into services, so the work we’re not doing has to be getting done by somebody else. If the levels of White and Black wealth were equalized, millions of disproportionately Black people in low wage employment would suddenly not have to do low wage work anymore. If you have a system that depends on rich people exploiting poorer people, like capitalism: somebody has to be poor. 

The White poverty rate is 7.3% while the Black poverty rate is 25%, why: Because what White supremacy adds to capitalism is to shift much of the burden of upholding the elite from the White masses to the Black masses. The burden isn’t completely shifted, poor Whites definitely exist, but White poverty tends to not be as grating as Black poverty, while White wealth is more enduring and empowering than Black wealth.

 One way to look at it is this: Every extra Black person flipping burgers for 8.25 an hour means one less White person is doing it. The burger still has to get flipped, so if a disproportionate number of us aren’t doing it, either more Whites are going to have to do it, or another marginalized group is gonna have to get pulled disproportionately into service. The great unspoken truth of mainstream social justice talk is that the economics of White supremacist capitalism are a zero sum game, a rising tide can’t lift all boats unless somebody is the water.

Plus, wealth only exists in the presence of inequality. You can’t have “haves,” without “have-nots.” If everybody inherits a house to live in from their grandparents, who’s gonna rent grandma’s house from you so you can create “passive income,” out of your “intergenerational wealth.” If everybody could borrow against home equity or cash in some investments to send their kid or grand kid to college without student debt, where would all the heavily exploited degree-less people come from?

If Black family wealth were equivalent to White family wealth, all those Black people who evacuate their inherited place at the bottom would have to be replaced by somebody. That could be White people, it could be immigrants from Central and South America, it could be poor people given free rides from Africa. Unlike the last time around, they’d be free laborers in the legal sense rather than the financial sense, but the threat of deportation would make them easy to control. One way or another, someone is getting exploited, because that’s capitalism. Of course, the most likely outcome is that the White capitalist class will never let this equalization happen. They’ve spent 400 years brainwashing and traumatizing us. Our leadership class is handpicked by them. Too many of us are convinced we’re a core part of the American imperial project and want to prove this by valuing what we’re told Americans value. This, to paraphrase Malcolm X, makes us easier to lead astray and run amok. There’s no benefit to replacing us but plenty of risk, and the owning classes are nothing if not risk averse.

Plus, letting us rise would imperil White racial solidarity, which would imperil the White masses’ ability to act as goons and enforcers for the White upper classes. We’ve been the White elite’s convenient scapegoat for 402 years and there’s no reason to believe they’d layout a path for us to change that now.

How then can we provide a prosperous future for our people? If all wealth is exploitation, am I saying we have no choice but to be poor? No, I am saying we can best solve the Black problem of poverty by abolishing poverty, of Black homelessness by abolishing homelessness, of Black suffering and want by abolishing suffering and want; not by transferring our poverty, homeless, suffering and want to others or by shoving it downwards to a smaller, but still present, Black underclass through merely seeking to achieve statistical equality with Whites under the very capitalist system our ancestors were enslaved to create and which billions of Black Africans still bleed, suffer and die to drive forward. 

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