You know what I love? The American Dream.
Maybe that’s a surprising thing to hear me say, as I so often use this blog as a platform to criticize our current system and express deep cynicism about many aspects of American life. But nah, man! I adore that shit. Devoid of the context of its shortcomings, stripped of its more recent associations with a generic sort of upward mobility, in its pure and original form, the American Dream is actually one of my very favorite things.
James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “the American Dream” in his book The Epic of America. He describes it as…
“… That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”– James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America
Freedom, liberty, independence, opportunity—that hopey changey stuff. I believe all the star-spangled buzzwords so often used to describe the national character of the United States are attempts to capture the light reflected by the glittering facets of this idea: that America is a place where everyone can rise to become their best selves, and that those best selves have equal value despite their differing contributions.
The American Dream… in practice
Like I said, I love and treasure this idea. And it’s because of that love that I taste such bitter disappointment in its failure. Nothing stings like seeing something fail when you really, truly believe in its inherent goodness. In the famous words of Tyra Banks: “I have never in my life yelled at [an idea] like this. When my mother yells like this, it’s because she loves me. I was rooting for you. We were all rooting for you. How dare you?!”
… Yeah. That’s how I feel about the American Dream in practice.
It’d take a galling amount of ignorance to fail to see the major cultural, political, and socioeconomic realities that make the American Dream more attainable for some than others. In this context, you can talk about the struggles of any number of marginalized groups—women, people with disabilities, queer folks, immigrants, minorities, and “out groups” of all kinds. But today we’re talking about race.
There are many systemic, structural, and institutional impediments to black excellence. Today we’re looking at an itty bitty pie slice of history that serves as an example of how white people have used racist terrorism to destroy black wealth. You know—a lighthearted topic, best served at lunch, with tea and cucumber sandwiches!
A history lesson
We’re going to talk about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. For the sake of readers who may be sensitive to this topic, let me clarify that our focus today is specifically on the economic impacts of violence. That necessitates acknowledging the existence of slavery, segregation, lynching, false sexual assault allegations, racist terrorism, and other upsetting topics. But I see absolutely no reason to repeat racist language or include detailed descriptions of physical violence to meet that goal. Gonna go ahead and miss y’all with that.
Also, we’re gonna keep this history lesson fast and shallow, because I ain’t any kinda damn historian! (Plus if I send Piggy another 5,000 word article for editing, she will divorce me.) We’re going to leave a lot of interesting stuff out, and sum up historical context with our signature house laziness. Slake any remaining thirst on the additional reading links provided at the end!
(You may have heard in the news that Donald Trump selected Tulsa, Oklahoma as the site of his first campaign rally of 2020—on Juneteenth no less! If you aren’t familiar with why this pissed so many people off, get excited! This article is about to shellack you in fresh knowledge like rejuvenating dewdrops on the morning flower!)
How you doing, twentieth century?
Let’s go back to the dawn of a new century. Not the one with Y2K—the other one!
The American Civil War is fifty years behind us. The Reconstruction Era was a wet mess for all parties, but outcomes for Northern and Southern states are diverging more as we slide into the Gilded Age.
Northern states are booming. Tycoon dynasties like the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers are here; they’re building railroads and serving industrialization realness. The boom is attracting a big influx of very poor European immigrants, who take one look at that bullshit and start forming labor unions, campaigning for women’s suffrage, and fighting to lay the foundation for progressivism in the United States. Remember Fievel? It’s very Fievel.
So that’s the North. What’s going on in the South at this time?
The post-Reconstruction South
Nnnnnoooot good. The North had a Pretty Cool Plan for beating southern armies, but the hard work of building a new agricultural economy that didn’t revolve around stolen labor/healing the emotional and cultural scars of 250-ish years of slavery and racist terrorism? Uh, they winged that one.
Sharecropping emerges as the new economic system. It does bupkis to redistribute wealth to formerly enslaved people and their descendants, essentially using debt as the new tool to oppress them (as well as their logical political allies, dirt poor white folks). That, in addition to rampant violence, extrajudicial murders, racist terrorism, and legal disenfranchisement, make the South a very unappealing place for black folks to stay.
Go West, young man!
Six million black Americans leave the South around this time. They are literally refugees from racist violence. Some go North, where they find economic opportunities, but also racist hostility. Poorer white folks don’t want them competing for jobs and lowering wages; wealthier white folks want to preserve their own political and social supremacy.
Which is why many chose to take their chances and go West. (Admire the restraint I show by withholding an American Tail 2: Fievel Goes West clip. Those capitalist dickhead cats were pretty solid villains, tho…)
If you were a black person wanting a new start at this point in history, “Indian Territory” (which you’d recognize as pretty Oklahoma-shaped) was a very attractive option.
The relationship between black Americans and Native Americans is a complex and heartbreaking one—way too nuanced to fully explore here. Suffice to say for our purposes that some tribes adopted the practice of owning Black slaves, and in 1866 those former slaves were legally freed and deemed tribal citizens as part of a broader goal to diminish Native American sovereignty. This opened a very unique opportunity for those formerly enslaved people to form self-managed, self-supporting communities.
Greenwood, Oklahoma: The Wakanda of the American West
There were “freedmen’s towns” in many states, with over fifty in Oklahoma alone. We’ll focus now on just one of them.
In 1906, wealthy black landowner O. W. Gurley purchased forty acres of land north of Tulsa. He had a vision of a stable, prosperous community created for black people, by black people, creating generational wealth among the formerly enslaved. He set out to attract black entrepreneurs by providing stable housing and business loans for people of color.
The Greenwood District started as empty land and a boarding house, but quickly became a busy, bustling testament to African American resiliency and entrepreneurship.
With strong availability of credit, high wages, booming industry, railroad access, and a community spirit dedicated to mutual aid and self-improvement, it’s no wonder people began describing Greenwood as Black Wall Street.
The rise of Black Wall Street
“On Greenwood Avenue, there were luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing stories, movie theaters, barbershops and salons, a library, pool halls, nightclubs and offices for doctors, lawyers and dentists. Greenwood also had its own school system, post office, a savings and loan bank, hospital, and bus and taxi service.
“Greenwood was home to far less affluent African Americans as well. A significant number still worked in menial jobs, such as janitors, dishwashers, porters, and domestics. The money they earned outside of Greenwood was spent within the district.
“‘It is said within Greenwood every dollar would change hands 19 times before it left the community,’ said [Michelle] Place, [executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum].”– History.com, Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’ Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub in Early 1900s
This is it.
This, to me, is the purest, most beautiful example of the American Dream I can summon up. A place where you can become a lawyer or a laborer, whatever you wish, according to your desires and your abilities, and live comfortably in the prosperity of your full self-actualization.
So what happened? A hundred years later, why isn’t Tulsa a Wakandan paradise of gorgeous African American billionaires throwing money out the windows of their flying cars?
Black solidarity threatened white supremacy
Remember how I said that, in the North, black folks found some prosperity, but also hostility? Both from poor white people and wealthy white people? Well. That happened in Oklahoma too.
This bastion of black excellence was a source of material jealousy and racial angst among poorer white folks. They were incensed and disturbed to see a race they considered inferior working together very effectively to outperform them. For the powerful and well-connected, the solidarity of the community represented an existential threat to the state’s white supremacist power structures. Oklahoma had just become a state. What would happen if a minority group came to control an entire state, granting them generations of real structural power and human rights?
After all, this was not only possible, but had recent precedent; the religious minority of Mormons had done exactly that in Utah. Today, over a century later, 80% of lawmakers in Utah identify as members of that church. THAT is what a well-organized transfer of generational power looks like.
You’re forgiven if you’re not super familiar with this era of history. Depending on your perspective, Utah either narrowly avoided a civil war with the United States, or that war definitely happened but then the United States swore it didn’t. Either way, they weren’t about to let the same thing happen again—especially with a minority that was so much more threatening to the existing white supremacist ruling class than a white religious minority. African Americans were many times more numerous, with a far longer and deeper legacy of oppression to justify breaking step with other states in radical, unforeseeable ways.
Mounting tensions come to Greenwood
Racial and ethnic tensions were simmering across America. The economy was expanding rapidly. There was wealth and power and land to be had. Communities with power allied against anyone who would challenge that power, usually along the arbitrary lines of race.
Oklahoma was no exception. The Oklahoma Supreme Court kept upholding unconstitutional attacks on voting rights, such as poll taxes and literacy tests designed to limit the rise of black political power they feared would follow their rise in financial and social power.
In Oklahoma as in other states, white lynch mobs began murdering black people with horrific savagery. (I am not getting into the history of lynching, but if you hear “lynching” and think it’s merely a synonym for hanging, you may want to do some reading, as your education on this issue likely failed you.) What professional police and militia roles existed intentionally protected the Ku Klux Klan and other instigators of racist terrorism.
The Tulsa Star, Greenwood’s black-owned newspaper, did an amazing job of educating and organizing the black community to protect itself, physically and legally, from exploitation and racist terrorism. They played a crucial role in coordinating the physical protection of black prisoners against extrajudicial punishments (like torture and murder) on spurious charges.
Racist terrorism to suppress economic competition
LIBERTARIANS, WAKE UP! We finally got to the part you care about! The pain and suffering of the <checks notes> free market!
Hopefully you learned in school that despite their maliciously violent ways, most members of the Ku Klux Klan were considered “respectable” members of their communities. (I wanna put seventeen more scare quotes around the word respectable, but I can’t spare the character count.) They were small business owners, local lawmakers, police officers, and other members of the ruling majority with power and influence.
That’s not an accident. Racist terrorism was a really effective weapon for destroying economic competition.
Targets for lynching were sometimes random; but often they were not. These violence-mongers tended to target successful black people: business owners, entrepreneurs, educated people, pastors, community organizers. The black butcher who opened his butcher shop across the street from a white butcher would quickly find himself targeted. Seeking moral cover for what were essentially assassinations of personal convenience, white supremacists would probably accuse the black butcher of the ultimate sin in a racist patriarchal society: attempted sexual contact with a white woman.
The spark that burned a city to the ground
White women have a long history of being used as moral justification for racial violence. It’s one of a hundred reasons why we—Piggy and I, two white women—feel especially strongly that we have a duty to speak out on these topics. We inherited the benefits of benevolent racist sexism, so we have a duty to work to dismantle them, regardless of whether we asked for them (we didn’t).
Anyway, that’s exactly what happened in Greenwood.
In May, 1921, Sarah Page, a seventeen-year-old white girl, rode in an elevator with a nineteen-year-old shoe shiner named Dick Rowland. During that ride, Rowland made contact (possibly purely accidental) with Page’s arm. She ran screaming out the the elevator, telling onlookers that he’d tried to grab her. Police arrested Rowland. By the time he arrived at the courthouse, a racist game of telephone had morphed the encounter into an attempted or completed rape.
Recognizing that Rowland’s life was certainly in danger of white mob violence, a group of twenty-five armed black men—many of them well-trained and disciplined WWI veterans—offered to help guard him at the courthouse. Word spread in both communities, but there were way, way more white people than black people: an estimated 1,500 against 75. Mass hysteria over the false allegations of the rape of a white woman was a spark that ignited a massive bonfire of white economic and political fear.
The Tulsa Massacre
I don’t want to get deep into describing exactly what happened next. If you’ve read this far, you can make a pretty edumackated guess. The mob looted businesses, destroyed homes, and killed innocent people in the very streets they built and owned. Police officers, deputies, and other law enforcement officers openly participated in the rampage.
Their rage wasn’t satisfied by burning the crops; they salted the earth by fire-bombing the entire neighborhood from the air. They intentionally left nothing for its inhabitants to return to.
Enough survivors and witnesses escaped the racist terrorism to spread the word of what had happened (over 800 people were recorded as being treated for injuries). But there was never a satisfying public reckoning or acknowledgment of wrongdoing. The rioters destroyed The Tulsa Star, silencing the voices it spoke for.
Based on available credible evidence, historians estimate the mob killed 100-300 people and burned $25-$50 million dollars worth of property to the ground. The truth was buried in mass graves, which anthropologists are just now beginning to uncover. The Tulsa Massacre was almost completely lost to mainstream history. It was only included in Oklahoma’s history books starting in 2009.
The legacy of Tulsa’s racist terrorism
I’ll conclude this very brief summary with three facts.
First: Not one single person was ever criminally convicted in connection to this incredible act of white racist terrorism, mass murder, and destruction.
Second: The event was classified as a “race riot.” Not “white racist terrorism.” In addition to linguistically implying culpability for the event to its oppressed victims, this meant that insurance companies didn’t have to pay out a single red cent. Greenwood permanently lost all property and wealth, despite having paid for insurance coverage.
Third: Actually, I’m gonna keep the last one a secret for a few more paragraphs. Thank you for indulging my flair for drama!
Measuring ripple effects
My thesis is that white racist terrorism destroys black wealth. So let’s talk more about that.
We already wrote an article a while back documenting a few of the many ways that it is easier to build wealth when you’re white. We touch on topics like educational opportunities, red-lining, political representation, racism in medicine, implicit bias in hiring, and many other topics. It’s a long list, but it ain’t anywhere close to comprehensive. Here’s one addition that directly relates to the Tulsa Massacre.
Economists traditionally identify two ways for an economy to grow: capital and labor. Factories and workers to staff the factories. Which ultimately means that material reality constrains economic growth. Ya can’t build infinity factories or tap into a pool of infinity workers!
Economist Paul Romer won a Nobel Prize in Economics for proposing that actually, there’s a third investment opportunity: innovation. If you put money into education, keep your marketplace a fair place with lots of healthy competition, and defend strong patent laws that respect the origin of valuable ideas, you can create wealth that way—and that’s an opportunity that isn’t constrained by those material realities.
The “idea gap”
Here’s where Dr. Lisa D. Cook comes in. This inspiring genius and professor of Economics at Michigan Sate University pioneered an expansion of Romer’s theory. Innovation requires more than just investments and legal protections—innovation requires social safety and equality.
To prove this, Cook researched the total number of patent applications by black inventors between 1870 and 1940. She then charted it against spikes in racial violence and the passage of new segregation laws.
And she was right. During times of racist terrorism and disenfranchisement, the number of patents from black inventors dropped like stones.
1921 stood out so starkly that Cook initially thought it was some kind of calculation error. But no: it was the measurable psychological impact of the Tulsa Massacre, felt across the entire Black population of America.
The economic impact of danger, destabilization, and racist terrorism
White people outside of Oklahoma may not have known about Black Wall Street. But black folks everywhere knew about Greenwood, just as queer people in the 1970s knew about San Francisco. Such an impressive gathering of black innovators was an inspiration to black folks everywhere.
When they were killed, an incalculable wealth of incredible ideas, cleverness, determination, and acquired physical capital died with them. But the most economically valuable loss was the loss of such a powerful symbol. Cook describes it this way…
“Tulsa demonstrated that no one would help them. No one. The local government failed. The state government failed. The U.S. government failed. At every single level, nobody had their backs. They were all afraid.
“It’s a sense of personal security. You don’t feel safe anywhere. [Your] livelihood might be in jeopardy. So if I’m a black inventor in another city, why would I ever invent anything if I thought the intellectual property was never going to be defended? If the Black Wall Street that everybody knew about [wasn’t] protected, why would I be protected?”– Planet Money, Patent Racism
The power of symbolism
Cook estimates that racial violence discouraged 1,100 inventions. That may not sound like much, but it was the equivalent of a medium-size European country at the time.
Consider the nature of how much of an impact a single invention can have. Here’s a list of *just ten* of the inventions attributed to black inventors before or around this time…
- Ironing boards, invented by Sarah Boone, who was born enslaved
- Electric lamps, invented by Lewis Latimer, the son of escaped enslaved people
- Automatic elevator doors, invented by Alexander Miles after his daughter was almost fatally injured in an elevator accident
- Automatic gear shifters for cars, invented by Richard Spikes, who was himself born in Indian Territory
- Wooden clocks and field irrigation systems, invented by Benjamin Banneker, a self-educated free black polymath, whose homemade clock ran accurately for the rest of his life: fifty fucking years
- Automatic safety shutoffs for electrical circuits and clothing dryers, both invented by George T. Sampson to spare his enslaved father from being whipped for not drying clothes to his white oppressor’s satisfaction
- Gas masks and three-way traffic signals, both invented by Garrett Morgan, the son of enslaved parents of mixed Black and Native American ancestry, who invented both to try to save human lives
1,100 routes to generational wealth… lost
I left off lawn mowers and home security systems and pacemakers and potato chips and pencil sharpeners and god knows what else. A single invention could have started dynastic wealth akin to the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.
Imagine this list with 1,100 bullet points, and you’ll have some idea of the devastating scale of what was lost.
Opening the gates on the American Dream
There’s a reason I started all of this with a little loving meditation on the American Dream.
Writing in the personal finance space, I see a lot of people who are predisposed to believe that any success is possible if one is willing to work hard enough. (Or, you know, risk enough, believe in yourself enough…insert your optimistic platitude of choice here!)
I want to live in that reality. I want it with every fiber of my being. Deep down, doesn’t everyone? To believe in it is to expect fairness, justice, and order in the world.
If you spend any time around little kids, you’ll know they’re obsessed with the concept of fairness. “That’s not fair!” is the quintessential little kid retort to any frustrating situation. Humans are social creatures; we live together in families and communities. And we’re terribly clever, with big brains calibrated to understand cause and effect, equivalent exchange, social contracts. I think that by our very nature, we’re born predisposed to believe that the world is a fair place. Because if the world isn’t fair, how the hell does it work?
And that idea is beautiful. It is absolutely precious. I know it sounds as corny as Iowa in September, but I believe in the American Dream.
Dream? Or delusion?
Yet there’s a stark difference between believing something is true, and believing it should be true. I’m firmly in the latter camp.
If the American Dream isn’t realistically attainable for every American, it’s not a dream: it’s a delusion.
By definition, the Dream fails when one group uses their power to diminish the potential greatness of another. And it also fails if quality of life isn’t guaranteed, regardless of the station one is called to occupy. Those failures were on full display in Tulsa in 1921. And aren’t they still the most pressing issues of our time, a full century later?
Applying historical knowledge to today’s choices
I teased you with one last factoid, and here it is: there were some white folks who objected to white supremacy, racist terrorism, and what happened in Tulsa.
Some crossed the “white line of silence” to testify against the criminals. Others opened their homes to black refugees, helped coordinate relief efforts, and raised funds to try to rebuild the area. That attempt failed, and Black Wall Street stayed buried, because there were fewer white people willing to be active allies than there were white people willing to be passive bystanders or active oppressors.
There’s your food for thought. Nibble on it as you decide how much you are willing to do, in this incredible time to be alive.
I’ll let a slightly more famous American Dream ruminator have the final word. I have lovingly cued up this moment in the speech, if you want to hear it for yourself.
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. And now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream”
For history buffs who want a deeper understanding of the topics touched on today, let me recommend a few resources!
- I got a lot of my information on the work of Dr. Lisa Cook from the Planet Money episode “Patent Racism.” It includes a transcript for those who prefer reading to listening.
- Cook’s paper “Violence and Economic Activity: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870 to 1940” can be read in full on her website.
- If you would like a bite-size summary that contains more of the details that I skipped over, the Stuff You Missed in History Class ladies give a good rundown in their episode “The Tulsa Race Riot and Black Wall Street.”
- For the full experience, I haven’t personally read The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan, but I’ve heard very good things.
- At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America guarantees a more comprehensive understanding of the darkest, most appalling crevice of American history.
- If you’re interested in becoming more well-rounded on issues of race, white supremacy, and racist terrorism in America, many people have put together curated lists of books, movies, podcasts, and social media follows. Here’s just one, from the folks behind the podcast Code Switch.
From the community:
- Lots of the good eggs in the personal finance community have created lists of diverse voices within the space. We’ll plug this one, from the handsome, regal, majestic, lovable, cuddly faces behind Paychecks & Balances. (Phew, coming in under the wire with our one-Disney-quote-per-article quota! The early Fievel joke didn’t count, that’s a Don Bluth film.)
- There are also tons and tons of resources to help you answer the question “what more can I be doing to fight white supremacy and racist terrorism?” If you haven’t found your personal answer to that question, we encourage you to start at the local level! Your community almost certainly has a Black Lives Matter chapter. Try finding and following them on social media, amplifying their messages, and watching for opportunities to contribute.
- If you’re exhausted from sadness, take three minutes of your life to watch this video. Watching it will help you remember that innocence is real and we can learn to love those who are very different from us. This busted world sucks ass sometimes, but it’s beautiful and it’s ours and it’s worth fighting for.
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