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How Wall Street Profits from Kicking Black People Off Their Land

From Georgia to Brooklyn to sub-Sahran Africa, inequity and exploitive land deals are making a handful of people rich—again.

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Geechee “history makes it hard for people to believe county officials who say there is no effort to push them from their land,” writes Times reporter Kim Severson. “The whole thing smells,” adds longtime island resident Jasper Watts.

Beyond Sapelo Island

The Sapelo Island dispossession exemplifies the larger problem of modern land-taking from people of color around the world.

Here in the United States foreclosures have separated millions of black and brown Americans from their property. Four out of 10 of the nearly 10 million people who’ve been foreclosed are black and Latino.

Like the residents of Sapelo Island, these men and women lost ownership due to circumstances largely beyond their control. Banks  steered credit worthy people of color into dodgy home loans. Once the loans went sour, as they were sure to do, blacks and Latinos were forced into bankruptcy and on the street.

Now those same banks that made the loans and hustled homeowners out are profiting from the mess they created.

Presently, Wall Street is spending billions of dollars to  buy these foreclosed homes and rent them back to the very people from whom they took them. The loss of property by blacks and Latinos due to this foreclosure racket has led the net worth in communities of color to plunge to the lowest level on record. Black and brown wealth has been transferred to the balance sheet of America’s largest banks.

The same dynamic is at work in the ongoing process of “gentrification” in urban America. Black and brown neighborhoods that were impoverished, due to intentional neglect by banks and municipalities, have suddenly been labeled as desirable. The same banks that helped create urban distress are profiting from it as they dispense new loans to mostly “ hipster and high income sophisto professional” newcomers, as Forbes Magazine contributor Joel Kotkin calls them. In the process, money is made by ushering out traditional residents who couldn’t get banks to make mortgages for 40 years.

According to Forbes, Brooklyn, with the highest concentration of gentrifying ZIP codes in the country, is now the second most expensive place in America to live. That’s no accident. Brooklyn also has the  highest foreclosure rate of any neighborhood in New York City.

In Africa and Latin America,  investors have bought up an area the size of Western Europe from cash-strapped governments for as little as .75 cents an acre. Similar land in the U.S. sells for as much as $12,000 an acre.

As they gain possession, financial firms push millions of subsistence farmers off their newly owned assets. Over 700,000 people are being forced from property in Ethiopia to make way for one agricultural project alone. These Ethiopians’ forbearers have worked that land for longer than anyone can remember.

In the space created by the forced removal of local people, industrial farms are set up to feed the rest of the wealthy world. What was once dedicated to support communities and families is now solely dedicated to generate profit.

Immediate Solutions

The larger trend of land-grabbing in the United States and around the world will require significant action to reverse it. In this election year, it’s a demand that should be made.

But the problems of the Geechee on Sapelo Island are solvable right now.

An investigation into the timing and legality of the tax reassessments should be considered. According to the Times, such a review by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is already possibly underway.

Another longterm option is the creation of a land trust for the Geechee residents. A trust, funded by people and organizations with means could underwrite the tax obligations of the Geechee; create terms for the intergenerational transfer of the property; and restrict the sale of Geechee land supported by the trust.

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