Unjust Enrichment – The concept of circumstances which give rise to the obligation of restitution, that is, the receiving and retention of property, money, or benefits which in justice and equity belong to another.
Many are familiar with this term/concept. However, what many do not consider, is the flip-side of unjust enrichment, undeserved impoverishment.
(consider the following excerpt…)
Consider four young children coming into the American colonies in the late seventeenth century. An African brother and sister are ripped from their homes and imported in chains into Virginia, the largest slaveholding colony. Their African name being ignored, they are renamed “negro John” and “negro Mary” (no last name) by the white family that purchased them from a slave ship. The white (Smith) family has young twins, William and Priscilla. Their first names were given to them by their parents, and they never wore chains. The enslaved children are seen as “black” by the Smith family, while the twins will live as white.What do these children and their descendants have to look forward to? Their experiences will be very different as a result of the system of racist oppression. William and Priscilla’s lives may be hard because of the physical environment, but they and their descendants will likely build lives with an array of personal choices and the passing down of significant social resources. As a girl and later as a woman, Priscilla will not have the same privileges as William, but her life is more likely to be economically supported and protected than Mary’s. Indeed John and Mary face a stark, often violent existence, with most of their lives determined by the whims of the slaveholder, who has stolen not only their labor but their lives. They will never see the families or homes societies again. They can be radically separated at any time, a separation much less likely for William and Priscilla. From their and other slaves’ labor some wealth will be generated for the Smith family and passed on to later generations. Unlike the white twins, John and Mary will not be allowed to read or write and will be forced to replace their African language with English. Where they eat and sleep will be largely determined by whites. As they grow older, major decisions about their personal and family relationships will be made by whites. Mary will face repeated sexual threats, coercion, and rape at the hands of male overseers and slaveholders, perhaps including William. Moreover, if John even looks at Priscilla the wrong way, he is likely to be punished severely.
If John and Mary are later allowed to have spouses and children they will face a much greater infant mortality rate than whites. And their surviving children may well be taken from them, so that they and later generations may have a great difficulty in keeping the full memory of their ancestors, a problem not faced by William and Priscilla. If John or Mary resist their oppression, they are likely to be whipped, put in chains, or have an iron bit put in their mouths. If John is rebellious or runs away too much, he may face castration. John and Mary will have to struggle very hard to keep their families together because the slaveholders can destroy them at any moment. Still, together with other Black Americans, they build a culture of resistance carried from generation to generation in oral traditions. Moreover, for many more generations John’s and Mary’s descendants will suffer similarly severe conditions as the property of white families. Few if any of their descendants will see freedom until the 1860’s.
The end of slavery does not end the large-scale oppression faced by John’s and Mary’s descendants. For four more generations after 1865 the near-slavery called legal or de facto segregation will confront them, but of course will not affect the descendants of William and Priscilla Smith. The later black generations will also be unable to build up resources and wealth; they will have their lives substantially determined by the white enforcers of comprehensive segregation. Where they can get a job, where they can live, whether and where they can go to school and who they can travel will significantly determined by whites. Some may face brutal beatings or lynchings by whites, especially if they resist oppression. They will have inherited no wealth from many generations of enslaved ancestors, and they are unlikely to garner resources themselves to pass along to later generations. From the late 1600s to the 1960s, John and Mary and their descendants have been at an extreme economic, political, and social disadvantage compared to William and Priscilla Smith and their descendants. The lives of these black Americans have been shortened, their opportunities severely limited, their inherited resources all but nonexistent, and their families pressured by generations of well-organized racial oppression.
The desegregation era of the 1960s may renew hopes for major changes in the system of racism. But the changes bear a great price. For example, the parents of young black children will be forced to watch them spit upon by howling mobs of whites seeking to stop school desegregation. Since the civil rights movement forced and end to legal segregation in the 1960s, John’s and Mary’s descendants have had more opportunity to control their lives and to garner some socioeconomic resources. Yet they have faced large-scale discrimination in employment, housing, and most other arenas of U>S> society because the 1960s’ civil rights laws are largely unenforced. The descendants of William and Priscilla Smith have not faced such discrimination, nor have the many whites whose families came into the nation after the end of slavery or legal segregation. Over the many generations since the late 1600s, John’s and Mary’s descendants have usually been unable to build up the economic, educational, and cultural resources necessary to compete effectively with white individuals and the greater socioeconomic resources they typically enjoy. Most of William and Priscilla Smith’s descendants, as the beneficiaries of the oppression of John and Mary’s descendants, have more or less prospered.
From this vignette we can begin to see how racism is economically and systematically constructed. Unjust impoverishment for John and Mary and undeserved enrichment for William and Priscilla become bequeathed inheritances for many later generations. Undeserved impoverishment and enrichment are at the heart of colonial land theft and the brutal slave system. Over time this ill-gotten gain has been used to construct a prosperous white-dominated nation. Today there is a general denial in the white population that black Americans have contributed much to American (or Western) development and civilization. This denial is part of contemporary white racist misunderstandings of the reality of the history of the West. However, the facts are clear: The slavery system provided much stimulus for economic development and generated critical surplus capital for the new nation. Without the enslaved labor of millions of black Americans, there might well not be a prosperous United States today.
-Racist America, Joe R. Feagin