Leveling Playing Field on Land Ownership

This article appeared in The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana) on Suaturday, June 9, 2001. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

By James Patterson
Indianapolis Star Editorial Writer

MADISON, Wis. -- In the Greyhound express of American democracy, land is power. Landless people, with few exceptions, are relegated to the back of the bus.

Land and property owners finance the politicians who pass the laws that govern the citizens. The American democratic republic was founded on the principles of a free-market economy based on property owned by its people.

The University of Wisconsin's Land Tenure Center understands the correlation between land ownership and effective participation in democracy. This summer, four UW law school students will spend 10 weeks in communities that have extreme needs regarding issues of land ownership.

Students in the Summer Law Extern Program contribute legal services to people in the Latino, American Indian, African-American and white Appalachian communities who are in danger of losing their land through loan approval decisions by the Department of Agriculture, ignorance of the law, trickery, theft or forgery.

"It's about ownership and wealth," said Joe Brooks, director of civic engagement and capacity building for Policy Link, a public policy research organization based in Oakland, Calif.

For those on the lower to middle rung of the economic ladder in the United States, the land loss issue couldn't be more real.

African-American-owned farm land has plummeted from its peak in the 1920s of 15.6 million acres to an estimated 2 million acres today. In 1920, one of every seven farmers was black. Today, that number has dropped to one in every 67.

The Isthmus, a Madison weekly, reported that one of the primary reasons for the rapid land loss among America's lower-income population is prejudice.

"Several factors account for this trend," the paper stated. "One is systematic discrimination against black farmers -- by banks, white farmers, even the federal government."

In 1999, the Department of Agriculture settled a class action lawsuit accusing it of discrimination against black farmers through loan-approval decisions made by predominantly white local committees.

As part of the settlement, some farmers received a $50,000 payment and forgiveness of debt. But that just addressed the tip of the iceberg and was hardly the answer, Policy Link's Joe Brooks told an audience here Friday.

"I equate land ownership to a civil right," Brooks said. "Because in this society, in this system, the ability to participate is tied to ownership. And without it you don't have a civil right to participate in our society."

Brooks, the Wisconsin law students and others are working to educate the poor people of Appalachia, American Indians in the Midwest and Southwest, Latinos of Texas and African Americans in the South about the importance of wills and other forms of legal redress.

African Americans own another 2.4 million acres in heirs' property, worth an estimated $30 billion, which is being lost through tax sales and lack of a will. When heirs can't agree on who should pay the property taxes or who should manage the land, the courts often solve the matter by ordering a partition sale.

There is no question that minorities in America have lost their land at alarming rates. The work being done by the courageous souls at the Land Tenure Center in Madison is a major part of the effort to stop the slide.

Brooks even suggests turning some of the 500 million acres of government lands over to those who have been disenfranchised -- a sort of new Homestead Act.

"The Homestead Act of 1862, which opened up the West for white Americans mainly, needs to be revisited," Brooks said. "We need to think about a new way to offer opportunities, given the history of this subject."

Since the Homestead Act was enacted before the Civil War was over and the free slaves were not allowed to participate, Brooks' idea has merit. Clearly, something must be done to level the playing field on land ownership.