The Tulsa Massacre and a case for reparations: 5 Things podcast

An African American photographer looking at the ruins of the Midway Hotel in Tulsa.
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On today's episode of 5 Things: May 31 and June 1, 1921 were a nightmare for Black residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the Tulsa Massacre, a white mob descended on a large Black neighborhood called Greenwood. It was one of the worst cases of racial violence in our country’s history.

Thirty-five blocks were burned and around 10,000 Black people lost their homes. Historians say nearly 300 Black people were killed by the violence. Property damage was between 50 million and 100 million dollars in today’s currency.

Over the past 100 years, people in Tulsa have been working together to rebuild Greenwood. Survivors of the massacre and Tulsa political leaders have always asked that the damage be repaired.

A group of survivors filed a lawsuit last year seeking reparations from the city of Tulsa and other local government entities.

Ohio State University economics professor Trevon Logan sits down with host Claire Thornton to discuss what reparations could fix for people whose lives were upended by the Tulsa Massacre.

Professor Logan also explains how different historic economic injustices have lingering effects on today's society and our country's overall economic well being.

Hit play on the podcast player above and read along with the transcript below.

Claire Thornton:

Hey there, I'm Claire Thornton and this is Five Things. It's Sunday, May 30th. The Sunday episodes are special. We're giving you more from in-depth stories you may have already heard. May 31st and June 1st, 1921 were a nightmare for Black residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the Tulsa massacre, a white mob descended on a large lack neighborhood called Greenwood. It's one of the worst cases of racialized violence in our country's history. The Black community in Greenwood was full of businesses and financial opportunities. It was entrepreneurial, creative and people achieved economic stability and prosperity. Then whites destroyed everything. 35 blocks were burned and around 10,000 Black people lost their homes. Historians say nearly 300 Black people were killed by the violence. Property damage was between 50 million and 100 million dollars in today's money. Monday is the 100 year anniversary of the violence. Over the past hundred years, people in Tulsa have been working together to rebuild Greenwood, but as time goes on the truth about the massacre and the damage falls further into the past. Survivors of the massacre and Tulsa political leaders have always asked that the damage be repaired.

Claire Thornton:

A group of survivors filed a lawsuit last year seeking reparations from the city of Tulsa and other local government entities. I sat down with professor Trevon Logan, one of the country's foremost experts on economic reparations to discuss what reparations could fix for people whose lives were upended by racialized violence. We talked a bit about the Tulsa massacre, but Tulsa is only one example of how systemic racialized violence destroyed economic resources. Professor Logan also told me about how all sorts of different economic injustices have lingering effects on society today and our overall economic well-being. Here's our conversation.

Claire Thornton:

So I'm joined by professor Trevon Logan, the Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of Economics at Ohio State University. Professor Logan, thanks so much for being here.

Trevon Logan:

Thank you for having me.

Claire Thornton:

So May 31st is the 100 year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. At USA TODAY in our coverage surrounding that anniversary, we're focusing a lot on reparations. For folks listening, reparations are something that's done to repair a harm that was caused in the past or restore justice in some way. Would you agree with that professor Logan? How else would you define reparations?

Trevon Logan:

I think that there are a couple of definitions of reparations and it depends in this particular case, racial reparations we're discussing, depends on the perspective when one's to think about what the reparations will be for. So certainly there's a case to be made for reparations for enslavement that will be due to the descendants of slaves. But it's also important to recognize that slavery was not the end of the process of racial discrimination and racial oppression. And so the other aspect of reparations are for the continual harms that were visited upon Black Americans after emancipation. And so some are viewing this in its totality of not being just about enslavement, but about the continual oppression, economic exclusion of African Americans that continues into the present.

Claire Thornton:

So regarding Tulsa, Tulsa is one of the biggest examples of racist violence in our country's history. A white mob destroyed a community and all of the resources that were a part of it. Whites killed nearly 300 Black people, according to some historians. A lawsuit filed by some survivors of the massacre estimate the property damage totaled between 50 million to 100 in today's currency. It's critical, it's so important that we learn about this history, commemorate it. Why do you think it's important that we not only recognize what happened, but respond and do something about it through reparations?

Trevon Logan:

I think Tulsa is one of those salient examples of the type of racial violence and economic violence visited upon Black Americans. And Tulsa's singular because it's one event, right? It happens in a short period of time, the community was completely decimated. There were a number of deaths and we believe now perhaps mass graves that were a result of the massacre there. And the destruction of this very vibrant and economically self-sustaining community tells us that we want to have reparations for this particular incident.

Trevon Logan:

It's also important to recognize that there's not only the direct harm to the people whose homes and businesses were bombed and looted, but also the fact that no insurance claims were paid for those who suffered harms. So if you think about actionable items for something that would be reparative, there was not even in the insurance industry a means for them to redress. They had paid premiums, but after this violence and after these bombs are literally dropped upon them, they have no means to recover from that or to be made whole. So there are certainly strong justifications for the actions that were taken by the government in Tulsa, and then by private insurance companies that would require reparations.

Claire Thornton:

You're an economics professor, when studying Tulsa specifically like you just said, we know that a lot of entrepreneurial opportunities were destroyed. And what you said about the insurance claims not being available is horrendous. That property damage, that loss of business opportunity, what are some of the economic repercussions we've seen throughout history since Tulsa when Black-owned businesses are destroyed? And tell us more about how there's not that safety net that can be accessed.

Trevon Logan:

We can think about other sorts of racial violence in the past and looting of Black communities, racialized violence, running African Americans out of town. The Elaine massacre in Arkansas where hundreds of Blacks were victimized and Black land owners were driven off their property and jailed. These are not isolated incidents when we think about them over time. So how does it play a role into the present? It plays a role into the present because these are direct actions that are taken by groups and mobs, many times supported by the state, of dispossessing African Americans from the wealth that they have. And when they're dispossessed from their wealth, they have no wealth to transfer to their children. So this is literally theft that is not actioned by the government. There's nothing that the federal government, state governments, local governments do when people's property has been confiscated by others.

Trevon Logan:

And there's no recompense for this. And it is a direct negative shock to Black wealth. And then there's no intergenerational transmission of wealth. And so if we think about the cumulative effects of I as a property owner having my property taken from me receiving no compensation for that, I now have nothing to pass on to my descendants. And that leads us to the situation we have today of African Americans having one tenth of the wealth of white Americans.

Trevon Logan:

Now, part of that are these direct incidents as we were talking about Tulsa and the destruction of that Black wealth. And then a larger picture of exclusion of African Americans from government backbook programs, wealth redistribution programs going back from the Northwest ordinance and continuing through take to the G.I. bill. These are other things that are happening that are also negatively impacting African Americans and their ability to accumulate wealth. So there's a direct linkage between African Americans having wealth and having it taken from them. And then on the other hand African Americans being blocked from participating in wealth enhancing activities that leads to these racial disparities in wealth that we see today.

Claire Thornton:

The extreme wealth inequality is being furthered to this day. I know you've done a lot of research regarding housing. Redlining means that Black neighborhoods became undervalued, government systems created more and more opportunities for white communities to retain and grow wealth. Tell us more about that history of racialized housing.

Trevon Logan:

So we know that cities had been and practiced racially exclusionary lending practices for some time. This has received a lot of attention recently as we have looked at those homeowners loan corporation maps that were developed in the early 1930s that existed and were predicated on existing segregation patterns. And what those maps did was they when we call it redlining it's because the areas that in these cities were segregated areas that were predominantly African American are the areas that were redlined. And these redlined areas were areas where it would be very difficult to purchase a home. These were literally considered to be communities in decline. And so there was no economic investment in those areas. So those areas featured two things, really high home prices for African Americans if they could purchase a home, although these areas were already marked for declining property values.

Trevon Logan:

So if you were an African American purchasing a home in this area, you're literally setting yourself up to accumulate wealth at a very, very slow pace relative to other areas in the city. But these are the only areas in which African Americans largely were able to purchase homes. The second is because it was very difficult to purchase a home you have relatively high shares of African Americans who are renting and therefore unable to do anything to accumulate wealth in those areas as well. So these areas of the city that are redlined are literally marked for destruction and also divestment in terms of public goods for the city, which also of course is related to their declining property values. And so it's related to the lack of access to wealth that we see because this is how the private sector was operating using this government program to deny African Americans access to credit and access to home ownership.

Claire Thornton:

Yeah. You write about how these policies went into place because whites and people in power agreed to implement them. If they had been interested in sharing resources, they wouldn't have agreed to this. It was in line with their values. You got into how redlining among other things leads to disinvestment, communities being undervalued, which then creates educational and health inequities. Tell us about some of those implications.

Trevon Logan:

Yeah, so we have seen health inequities really since we've been able to measure them in the United States. And so all the way back from immediately after emancipation we see continual work in the medical community to deny African Americans access to care, receiving lower quality care and being in communities once again where these redline communities are, are communities that have a disproportionate number of environmental hazards as well which have a negative impact on health. And so what we've done when we sort of use these very sophisticated methods, we know where people are living in the city, we then make other strategic decisions through the political process of where to place, for example, harmful polluting commercial operations.

Trevon Logan:

Where we're placing for example lines and electrical wiring and other sorts of the infrastructure for industry that we know are related to negative health implications. All of that being spaced out geographically and being placed in Black communities as a form of environmental racism, which has a direct impact on health, lower quality water for example, higher levels of pollutants in the water, higher levels of pollutants in the air are themselves driven by and they're not distributed randomly in our local areas.

Trevon Logan:

And so those are another way in which there's environmental hazards in the area. And it's important to note the presence of those environmental hazards is naturally also priced into the real estate market because people don't want to live around those sorts of environmental hazards. And again this is going to depress the accumulation and ability to a prehab wealth appreciation in the Black community.

Claire Thornton:

And what about schools? We know people like to say I want to live in this area because I want my kids to go to a good school. There's value being placed on resources within communities based on how the political system assigns value to that community. What would you say about educational inequities?

Trevon Logan:

This is very important, it goes back to this issue of public goods and sharing public goods. So we're talking about segregation and we're talking about exclusion, and we have to realize that they are highly related to each other, but sort of separate and they have different dimensions. So you can be segregated, say in the city and you could have say the north side of town that is predominantly African American, and the south side of town that is predominantly white. And that would be a segregated city. When we move to issues like schooling, it is important to recognize that people are making an active political decision to exclude groups from the public goods. And so public goods will be like your local public school system. So if you're excluding them from that, you not only want to live in a separate part of the city, you need to live in a separate city.

Trevon Logan:

And so when we see the rise of suburbanization, this is an opportunity to exclude groups from the public goods. And the public goods would be things like parks, recreational facilities, schools, local police forces, et cetera. That now can work for these racially homogeneous communities. So segregation is not just about the practice of wanting to live separate, but when we get into the public goods in this political process, it's not wanting to share or have African Americans have access to our local parks, have access to our local school system. And that is where we have these separate communities which also then of course allow people to have separate school districts and separate school systems for their homogeneous communities.

Claire Thornton:

Yeah. Going back to economic repercussions specifically and the idea of what we've lost economically as a society, because of systemic racialized injustice. Throughout history we've destroyed many economic opportunities and squandered so many resources in undervalued communities and that's hurt the economy as a whole.

Trevon Logan:

Yeah. So there's a really broad way of thinking about this that economists have recently done a lot of work on. And certainly I want to tip my hat to Heather Magee's work of the sum of all of us, which is a great piece looking at what it cost and what discrimination and exclusion cost us economically. So in a really basic sense, what discrimination and exclusion and these historical practices do is they misallocate resources. So if we're thinking about productive capacity in the United States in a widget factory, and we think about sort of workers being placed in the widget factory to produce the most widgets that they can as efficiently as possible, you'd want to allocate people to the task that they're best able to perform so that the organization overall is the most productive that it could be. When you scale that up to thinking about an economy, you want workers in the economy doing the things that they have a comparative advantage in doing, because that's going to increase our productive capacity.

Trevon Logan:

When you have a discriminatory system, you're not allocating people to the best practices and to their most useful purpose. And that is by definition going to limit your capacity. So when you think about what's happening in the economy overall with this misallocation due to discrimination, it's lowering the output for all of us. It harms all of us when we do that. But it's important to note that for the discriminator this is a cost they might be willing to pay. In other words they're willing to give up some total output to maintain that discriminatory practice.

Trevon Logan:

And one of the things that always strikes me when we see these estimates which should go into the trillions about what discrimination cost us. Lisa Cook in her recent New York Times op-ed talks about this. We are willing then as a society, and certainly the dominant group in society, is willing to forgo trillions of dollars in output to maintain discriminatory practices. Which gets to the root of the fact that there is a huge cost to us from discrimination. And why are we so willing to bear it when it costs all of us that? It's not just born by those who are discriminated against everyone is losing out from this practice. And we really then have to think about and investigate how we can get that output returned and realized by not having this misallocation of talent.

Claire Thornton:

In reading your work its just become clearer and clear to me that what some people would say happened in the past, historic injustices, we're dealing with it every day in the present. And it gets to what you said earlier about repairing current harms through reparations. What are some examples of reparations that you imagine?

Trevon Logan:

So reparations as I imagine them have to close this racial wealth gap. If we think about the cumulative effects of enslavement, continual discrimination, exclusion, oppression of African Americans. I think the first best way of thinking about how it's actualized and how it has material effect today is on the racial wealth gap. So we would think about a policy that would close the racial wealth gap today as the biggest goal of a reparations program. And then we have to start thinking really creatively because I've talked about this of course and we're thinking about this as closing the racial wealth gap. So that is not going to be then an income transfer. A lot of people think about we're just going to set up a payment, that will be a transfer of income, what we're talking about is wealth. So when we think about what a reparations program would need to be, we have to think about our historical examples of how we've done wealth transfers in the past.

Trevon Logan:

This would be access to credit markets, access to, for example, investments, access to property and other ways in which we do initiate a wealth transfer to African Americans. And there are a number of different solutions to this, whether we're thinking about moving in the property market and moving in real estate, whether we're thinking about moving in the asset market and access, for example, to investment accounts. And other forms for example having property that is tax ebated for African American homeowners, which would allow them to appreciate faster than other sorts of assets. Those are all creative solutions to solving this problem, but we have to keep the focus on a wealth transfer. Given these huge wealth inequities, a large income transfer in and of itself could actually exacerbate our racial wealth inequality because those income transfers could accrue to those who already have wealth.

Trevon Logan:

So we see this when we're thinking about current inequality that the wealthiest people did pretty well in the pandemic. As others are losing income they're gaining wealth as their wealth holdings and the appreciation of the assets that they own continue to accelerate. You go back to for example the recent uptake in the housing market is contributing to the racial wealth inequality gap getting larger because of the disparities in home ownership. So we have to make sure that when we do this wealth transfer, we're targeting wealth and that we actually close the racial wealth gap in the process of a reparations program.

Trevon Logan:

One thing about reparations is historically, this is something that African Americans have known and been keenly aware of from the time of emancipation onward. So Black political leaders were talking about doing wealth redistribution, thinking about 40 acres and a mule. When we talk about reparations I just think it's really important for people to understand that African Americans have always known that they have been behind the eight ball in terms of wealth. And they've also known that they have been excluded from federally originated policies that distributed wealth. And so reparations is not a new thing. This is something that African Americans have known throughout their history that they had been excluded from these wealth generating activities. And this is a time now in this moment to address it.

Claire Thornton:

Thank you so much again for being here, Professor Logan. It was great having you.

Trevon Logan:

Thank you.

Claire Thornton:

You can read more about the Tulsa massacre and the case for reparations at reparations.usatoday.com. The link goes live tomorrow on the 100th anniversary. If you liked this episode of Five Things rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. When you write us a review, we'll give you a shout out on the next episode. Thanks for listening, I'm Claire Thornton. Shannon Green will be on the show tomorrow morning with Five Things you need to know for Monday. I'll catch you next time.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tulsa Massacre and a case for reparations: 5 Things podcast

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