“Free the land!”

Cooperatives have a long history in black American life. There were co-ops for sharecroppers seeking better markets for their produce, co-ops for townspeople who wanted better prices for basic commodities, and cooperative communes that tried to create a new world apart from white supremacy.

Twenty years ago, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a political economist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, began to notice a hidden economy at work in African American life. Again and again, people were organizing themselves in creative forms of cooperative enterprise, democratically owned and managed by those who took part. Starting with the co-ops listed in W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1907 book Economic Cooperation Among Negro Americans, she began reconstructing a history, eventually published in her 2014 book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, that, before, had only been told in bits and pieces, passed down through families but rarely seen as significant. There were co-ops for sharecroppers seeking better markets for their produce, co-ops for townspeople who wanted better prices for basic commodities, and cooperative communes that tried to create a new world apart from white supremacy. Where white banks wouldn’t lend money, credit unions arose. These efforts faced sabotage and repression. But they were always around. “There’s really no time in US history when African Americans were not doing cooperative projects,” Nembhard told me.

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The American Model

What appears to be still difficult, even as it gets told in ever finer detail, is the simple and immense situation that America and Nazi Germany are two instantiations of a single history of white supremacist rule.