Reverse racist land grabs.

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In April, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to make amends for a massive land grab rooted in white supremacy, though this remedy came almost a century too late (MSN). In the early twentieth century, Charles and Willa Bruce opened a Manhattan Beach resort that offered other Black families the opportunity to vacation under the Southern California sun. The white residents of Manhattan Beach were not pleased. The Bruce’s neighbors slashed their tires. The Ku Klux Klan set fire to the resort’s deck. These horrifying acts of white vigilantism weren’t what forced Charles and Willa to leave. In actuality, it was Manhattan Beach itself. The city government condemned the entire neighborhood around Bruce’s Beach. They then seized the resort through eminent domain. Though the city said that they did this to construct a park, this park never materialized. The Bruce family, forced from the city, was compensated only one-fifth of their asking price for the land they were forced to give up.

“This was such an injustice that was inflicted,” said LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, “not just on Charles and Willa Bruce, but generations of their descendants” (Yahoo News). 

This isn’t just the story of one bad town. We are often taught to think about racism in American housing as only a matter of federal policy, a peculiarity of Southern states before the Civil Rights movement, or a historical injustice whose wrongs have been set right. In reality, none of these things are true. 

It was not just segregated states, but cities and towns across the country, that actively excluded Black, Chinese, or other people of color from white neighborhoods. Some allowed non-white people during the day but prohibited them from staying after dark. There were over 100 of these so-called “sundown towns” in the supposedly progressive state of California alone (Yahoo News). 

And the legacy of racist housing practices lives on. For one thing, the historical robbery of properties like Bruce’s Beach deprives the descendants of the original owners of untold amounts of familial wealth. For another, the sundown towns of the past remain overwhelmingly white to this day. They’re no longer supposed to be able to exclude people of color by law. But in practice, the prevalence of anything from racial slurs (LA Times) to police harassment to private businesses’ refusal to serve Black customers serves the same purpose for these white enclaves. 

The LA County Board of Supervisors endorsement of the return of the Bruces’ land is significant because it could open the door for other Black families’ reimbursement for the historic theft of their property as well. Community organizations recently pressured another California municipality, Glendale, to publicly apologize for its status as a former sundown town. The town of Norman, Oklahoma, did the same (News 9). Things might keep changing, but only if we support community organizations to keep up the fight. 

The fight to return Bruce’s Beach to the family isn’t over. The California State Assembly will now need to pass additional legislation to approve the act. And this fight goes well beyond Manhattan Beach. The belated apologies of other former sundown towns may be meaningful, but they do not serve to compensate those whose ancestors were deprived the right to live within them. Racist housing policies in this country run so deep that the entire state of Oregon once functioned as one large sundown town, with a constitutional provision banning Black people from living or owning property within its borders. This language remained in the state constitution under 2002 (Ballotpedia). Given the way these historical injustices bleed into present-day inequities, Oregon scholar and activist Walidah Imarishi gave the reminder that, “If you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in liberation – now is the time to act” (OPB).

Malcolm X once said in a speech that “land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality” (Rev). Land is not only where we put family businesses; it is the stage of our entire lives. Land is the means by which we build safety and homefulness for our future and the futures of those who will come after us. These are all of the things which white supremacy and white people have stolen from people of color in the United States and it is well past time to right these wrongs. 

We need to reverse racist land grabs.

Key Takeaways

  • Many American cities and towns excluded people of color through laws and intimidation. 

  • The Bruce family is fighting for the return of land a California city once legally stole from their ancestors. 

  • Land theft not only affected its victims but their present-day descendants who lost the familial wealth that land would have helped create. 

  • People of color in the U.S. have been systemically denied access to the security and resources that the land provides.

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