The descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce were finally able to claim their inheritance. In 1924, the city of Manhattan Beach, California, invoked the power of eminent domain to seize two beachfront lots from the couple, who had been using them to operate a popular black resort, to purge the city of black beachgoers. In 2022, Los Angeles County took the unprecedented step of turning over ownership of property return to the couple’s closest living heirs. Last week, the Bruces’ great-grandchildren sold it to the county for almost $20 million.

After the sale was announced, some on social media criticized the Bruces’ decision to sell, particularly after a hard-fought battle to get the property back in the family. But they had every right to sell the land and shouldn’t feel obligated to keep the property simply because of its tokenism.

Black dispossession and displacement remain a key source of profit through real estate, and many of the same legal tools that were used to expropriate Black homes and land in the past are still used to do so. nowadays.

Just as short-sighted, however, is treating this case as a model of reparation for all African-Americans, as some have suggested. To do so would ignore that true repair requires repair, and this solution fails to address the sources of racial inequality in America’s housing system.

To understand why, we must first acknowledge how the Bruce lots became so valuable in the first place. In so many real estate markets formed in 20th century America, value was created and capital accumulated through racialized forms of dispossession, while the exclusion of blacks from these very markets served to protect and enhance those values. Today’s expensive Manhattan Beach real estate market is largely due to the wealth and whiteness of the people who live there (the city’s median income is nearly three times the national average and Blacks make up 0.5% of the city’s population).

Bruces Beach used to be owned by one of the first prominent black beachfront owners
A photograph of Charles and Willa Bruce in front of a memorial plaque at Bruce’s BeachMel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

For this reason, we should commend Los Angeles County for returning land to its rightful owners, but not assume that simply expanding Black real estate can close a racial wealth gap that these very markets helped create and perpetuate.

What happened to the Bruce family was particularly egregious but not atypical. Throughout the Jim Crow era, white public authorities, often in collaboration with private interests, used their powers to dispossess blacks of million acres of land and an untold number of homes and businesses. Invariably, black property was most endangered when it became valuable or when it threatened white property value and business interests.

Black losses were real estate capitalist gains. He fueled the growth of the real estate and housing markets across the country. You don’t have to go far back into land records to find the names of black families who once owned and lived in what are now some of the United States territories. most exclusive real estate markets.

Sometimes these lands were taken by violence and outright theft, but more often, it was done, as it was for the Bruces, through seemingly bloodless legal means or sold under duress for much less than what worth. But no matter how it was done, the effects were the same. The properties that Black people fought to acquire and pass on to future generations, the businesses they worked to build and grow, the communities that formed in these spaces were taken over, destroyed and rebuilt. They became places from which blacks were excluded or could not afford to live, and they created wealth that blacks would never possess.

Black dispossession and displacement remain a key source of profit through real estate, and many of the same legal tools that were used to expropriate Black homes and land in the past are still used to do so. nowadays. Take for example the continued abuse of the tax lien and foreclosure sales. Throughout the Jim Crow era, local white officials routinely overtaxed black property, diverted untold numbers of black owners to tax delinquency, and then sold their land and houses for unpaid taxes. In US cities today, properties in black neighborhoods continue to be overloadedwhile African Americans continue to be disproportionately victims of a tax enforcement system that allows private investors take advantage of homeowners in financial distress.

In the years after the 2008 housing market crash, for example, Detroit officials overrated home values ​​in the city’s low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods in a desperate move to boost income and avoid bankruptcy. And, when financially strapped homeowners failed to pay exorbitant tax bills, they ordered their homes sold for taxes. Since 2009, 1 in 3 homes in Detroit they were auctioned off at tax foreclosure sales, where private equity firms, real estate trusts and other institutional investors picked them up. In gentrifying real estate markets, tax sales serve as lucrative source of profit, whose main victims are black, elderly and low-income people. Local governments manage these sales and facilitate these forms of predation because it is in their interest to do so. After all, gentrification increases property values ​​and increases tax bases, even as it raises housing costs, excludes the poor, and turns low-income communities to dust.

In many ways, what happened to the Bruces in the 1920s was just a cruder and more openly racist version of what happens to Black homeowners and neighborhoods across America today. The same motives and interests that led Manhattan Beach to seize the Bruces’ beachfront lots a century ago continue to shape and inform how local governments, private investors, and white property owners view and treat blacks and women. black properties in the real estate and housing markets: as a threat to be contained and a source of profit to be exploited.

While the cash payment to the Bruce family is long overdue, proper repairs mean repair. In this case, what needs to be fixed is a system of real estate capitalism in America that constantly creates wealth and opportunity for white Americans at the expense of blacks. It’s one that makes white-owned property worth more. why it is black and white property that is worth less because it is black, and that incentivizes public authorities to use their powers to shape housing markets in ways that reproduce and reinforce those inequalities. Righting the wrongs of the past and bringing justice to Black Americans today must start here.