Reviews | Juneteenth reminds us to think about economic freedom, not just legal freedom

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“Self-control was seen as eroded by economic dependency,” Stanley told me.

Naturally, then, when emancipation came, the first thing the former slaves wanted was land, which they rightly considered a prerequisite for true independence. “The best way to take care of ourselves is to have land, and to transform it and cultivate it by our own labor,” a Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier told Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the Union General William Sherman in a meeting in Savannah, Georgia, in January 1865. Four days later, Sherman promised 40 acres of land to each formerly enslaved family. (The “and a mule” part came later.)

But the federal government never delivered on its promise of land—and therefore true independence—to former slaves. Economics came into play, Stanley said: If African Americans grew subsistence crops on their own plots, who would grow and harvest all the cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice grown on the vast plantations?

After the Civil War, instead of land distribution, slavery was replaced by sharecropping, in which planters allowed sharecroppers to keep some of the crops they produced. It made tenants subject to landlords almost as surely as slavery.

At the same time, industrialization in the North meant that more and more white Americans worked for pay—about two-thirds by 1875, according to Stanley. Many have made the connection between them and African Americans. Eugene Debs, who led the Pullman Railroad strike in 1894, said, “The Pullman’s paternalism is the same as a slave owner’s interest in his human possessions. You strike to avoid slavery and degradation.

Today, the phrase “wage slavery” invoked by Debs and others has lost its potency. Many people who work for wages do very well, thank you. And many supposedly more independent farmers and business owners are being buffeted by forces beyond their control, from bad weather to unpleasant customers. What hasn’t changed, 157 years after the June 19 proclamation, is that a majority of African Americans continue to lack wealth. The median wealth of black families in 2019 was just $24,100, compared to $142,500 for white families, according to a Federal Reserve survey.

Something has to change, but what? The nature of the economy has changed and few people still believe that the solution to inequality is to give people plots of land to farm. We are tied together economically in ways that Jefferson could not have imagined. Instead of land grants, the new protections for workers are unionization, government regulation and profit sharing, Stanley said. We can quibble about its formula, but the motivation behind it is indisputable. Freedom – which must include economic freedom – is just as important today as it was on June 16.

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