Last year the nation commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, when White Tulsans descended on the Black Greenwood community and burnt it down. More than 300 people were killed, 8,000 left homeless, and 6,000 herded into internment camps. According to most accounts, the incident was deliberately covered up and remained mostly unheeded until recently. But in some ways that’s a false narrative. Whether by insidious design or object lesson, the Tulsa Massacre established a paradigm that quickly became standard operating procedure across the American economic landscape and persists to this day, including across New York City and New York State. In less draconian and more palatable forms than the 1921 Massacre – yet with similar devastating impact – the Tulsa-fication of Black and Brown communities has institutionalized their economic exclusion and generational poverty, and our current system of mass incarceration is a direct descendant of that infamous 1921 event.
Greenwood was known as Black Wall Street, a vibrant community of 35 blocks with more than 10,000 residents, boasting a full range of Black-owned businesses, including dozens of grocery stores and restaurants – many owned by women – as well as pharmacies, music shops, schools, movie theaters, a dance hall, a skating rink, and a 50-room hotel. Nearly half the population were professionals: In addition to small business entrepreneurs there were doctors, dentists, lawyers, milliners, shoemakers and more – all Black. Opportunity abounded for Greenwood residents, according to their own accounts, who could pursue any number of pathways to financial security and social status, and pass those resources on to the next generation. This vibrant economic ecosystem wasn’t built with government or philanthropic funds, or by people from other communities coming in with programs to “teach” the Black populace how to succeed. Rather, it was developed by the people of Greenwood who had the talents and resources to create the community they wanted. Greenwood embodied the epitome of the American Dream. And that, perhaps, was the problem.
The pretense for the Tulsa Massacre was nothing new: a Black teenage boy “touching” a White teenage girl. But it was nothing more than a pretense. As native Tulsa historian Jack Ellsworth noted, the real issue that rankled white Tulsans was that every dollar generated in Greenwood “would cycle through [the] community a dozen times before a white hand would touch it.” Burning down Greenwood and then initiating policies that effectively prevented the rebuilding of a self-sufficient Black community ensured that Black residents of Tulsa would cycle their dollars almost exclusively into White businesses, denying Black Tulsans pathways to economic and political clout.
Sound familiar? It should. Since Tulsa, policies have been instituted on a national scale to accomplish the same thing.
In 1933, a little more than a decade after the localized event in Tulsa, the federal government launched what Richard Rothstein, a senior fellow at the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall Institute, calls a “state-sponsored program” to help middle class white families become homeowners while funneling Black and Brown people into substandard urban housing projects. That policy was expanded into the private sector shortly after through the practice known as redlining, denying people mortgages and home or business insurance based on race. Such housing practices aggregated Black & Brown communities of poverty, engendering multiple layers of social and economic segregation, where even New York, the third most diverse city in the country, has the most segregated public school system.
And the Tulsa-fication of America marched on. Perhaps the most pernicious strategy to break up economically heartyBlack and Brown communities was the much-heralded Urban Renewal projects of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Under Urban Renewal the country built out the modern highway, road and infrastructure system that now connects American cities and greatly expanded transit and commerce. Huge tracts of private and public land were confiscated, and it should come as no surprise that middle class white communities were bypassed for these projects while many vibrant Balck communities like Greenwood were literally paved over.. Urban Renewal almost exclusively targeted communities of color, displacing more than 1,000,000 people – including 100,000 in NYC. As the writer James Baldwin famously remarked, “Urban Renewal meant Negro removal.”
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made redlining illegal; though it continues to be widely practiced, its censure led many banks to adopt a different tactic to keep Black and Brown people out of white communities, and to squelch Black and Brown home and business ownership even in their own neighborhoods. As Stuart Rossman, director of litigation at the National Consumer Law Center notes, the decline of redlining coincided with the rise of “reverse redlining" or predatory lending targeting the same population, which set often insurmountable barriers to home ownership and business creation that could create a middle class and build generational wealth and opportunity within Black and Brown communities.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as funding for urban renewal projects started to constrict and in the wake of social upheaval following the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Richard Nixon introduced “law and order” as a priority for his administration. As a 1968 Time cover story noted, “law and order” was widely understood as “a shorthand message promising repression of the black community.” During the next decades the number of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. grew from about 350,000 people, divided roughly along the same racial and class lines as the general population, to more than two million people, with people of color vastly over-represented.. In New York State,more than three-quarters of the incarcerated population is drawn from just seven predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods in New York City.
Driven by a web of policies that rip large numbers of Black and Brown people from their home communities, this system of gerrymanded mass incarceration continues the long tradition of the Tulsa-fication of America, undermining the economic viability of those neighborhoods, disarming channels that develop talent and resources, and ensuring continued second-class citizenship for many non-white Americans.
The cumulative results of federal housing policies, urban renewal, redlining and predatory lending, and mass incarceration have extended the legacy of the Tulsa Massacre, accomplishing on a national scale the outcomes pursued by white Tulsans when they descended en masse on Greenwood to destroy Black Wall Street: To strip Black and Brown communities of their economic power and thereby prevent their ability to have status and influence in the body politic.
That’s the real legacy of the Tulsa Massacre: a blueprint for institutionalizing generational exclusion of citizens of color in order to preserve the hegemony of America’s founding white class.
However, sometimes such strategies can work too well. The U.S. now finds itself burdened by mass incarceration’s $1 trillion dollar annual cost, a mental health system overburdened by traumas inflicted by this system, and a national conscience finally beginning to reckon with its history of racism. New York is a case study: The state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, costing taxpayers $82,000 to incarcerate someone for a year and more than $550,000 a year in New York City; correctional facilities, homeless shelters and subways inundated by people with untreated mental health issues; a police force in perennial conflict with the citizens its sworn to protect; an acute affordable housing crisis; and the widest gap between rich and poor in the country.
Of course, there are countless theories and narratives of America’s historic racism, how it contributed to a system of mass incarceration, and how it has bolstered other endemic social woes – so many, that these issues can seem complicated, daunting and at times contentious. Even within the reform movement it often becomes impossible to get a clear consensus of understanding and action, and we end up investing in competing narratives that disperse efforts and focus more on symptoms than root causes. We may be better served by creating digestible, easy to share narratives like the Tulsa-fication of America articulated here as both shorthand for how we got where we are and how we can best move forward.
Instead of viewing the Tulsa Massacre as yet another point in the expanse of our country’s historic racism, we can map it as a guiding star by which to navigate our way to Black and Brown communities as vibrant economic engines. Instead of telling stories of victimization that can be used as cudgels by all sides, we can elevate instructive, self-empowering stories of success like Greenwood’s Black Wall Street. Instead of doubling down on policies that promote poverty, trauma and indignity, rend our social fabric, and divide our body politic, we can nurture communities that generate opportunities, expand the tax base, and provide benefit for all of us.
The best strategy moving forward – in New York and elsewhere – is not rocket science, requiring great expense, rare knowledge and expertise. It’s everyday common sense: Leveraging the same creativity, industry, and purpose that the people of Greenwood exhibited.