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“Killers of the Flower Moon” Shows Wealth-Building Doesn’t End Racial Injustice

The history of the Osage people reminds us that access to wealth does not bring racial justice to communities of color.

The granddaughter of Mollie Burkhart, Margie Burkhart, visits the Gray Horse cemetery, where her ancestors are buried, in Gray Horse, Oklahoma, on September 29, 2023.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a tear-jerking film chronicling the real history of white settler exploitation of the newfound wealth of the Osage Nation. The movie touched on various themes, but the intersections of wealth and race struck me.

Even though the Osage people were the wealthiest community in the world at the time, they still experienced horrific racist violence that killed 150 people between the 1910s and 1930s. A century later, wealth-building in communities of color is often hailed as the magic bullet that will end racism. Unfortunately, the Osage peoples’ history reminds us that a racist system can’t be resolved through wealth accumulation.

The Osage people traditionally lived near the Osage River and migrated throughout the Midwest. As their lands were annexed by encroaching United States colonial forces, the Osage were forcibly relocated to Northern Oklahoma in 1872. Oil was soon discovered on their land in the late 19th century, and the Osage generated revenue through leasing fees and oil royalties. This made the Osage people very wealthy, earning more than half a billion of today’s dollars in one year alone.

But the Osage people continued to exist under a white settler colonial state, and the U.S. government created rules for the management of the wealth distribution process. The Osage people were assigned white financial “guardians” who oversaw their every expense in an infantilizing and racist system that also left the Osage vulnerable to exploitation by white settlers.

By the 1920s, white officials and so-called guardians had executed a series of murders against dozens of Osage people. The murders sometimes targeted whole families so that the white guardians and their spouses could inherit the rights of the Osage families. Killers of the Flower Moon recounts the murders in Osage Mollie Kyle’s family: her sisters Anna, Reta and Minnie, her mother Lizzie, and her cousin Henry Roan. The murders were planned by Kyle’s white husband, Ernest, and his uncle William Hale to inherit the family’s head rights.

The Osage people were assigned white financial “guardians” who oversaw their every expense in an infantilizing and racist system that also left the Osage vulnerable to exploitation by white settlers.

The Osage had to appeal to the federal government for intervention, as local and state officials either looked away or were in on the scheme. After lobbying for years, the Osage eventually paid the federal government to investigate the murders. Still, justice was slow and never fully realized: Many of the murders remain unsolved. The Osage people later sued the U.S. for the mismanagement of their funds, winning $380 million in a 2011 settlement. The Osage continue to advocate against settler control of their lands and share their peoples’ resilient collective history.

A century later, it is still common to see people discuss wealth-building as a remedy for racial injustice. From historical advocates like Booker T. Washington to contemporary financial professionals, the belief that money can resolve racial inequity persists. It’s understandable why this is an appealing idea for so many. The repercussions of racism lead to persistent gaps in access to education, quality jobs, health care and housing. These issues create significant wealth disparities and disproportionate poverty in Black and Brown communities.

On an individual level, it often seems like the issue is just a money problem. Many might think: If only I had more money to pay bills, could live in a better neighborhood, and afford health care, private school, and quality food, then the problem would be solved. But if you zoom out and look at the systems that have led to poverty in the Indigenous, Black and Brown communities, you will see that the issue goes well beyond money.

Indigenous, Black and Brown communities are faced with barriers that make it difficult for us to build wealth. Even when wealth is achieved, communities of color still have a harder time retaining it over subsequent generations. This is the case of the Osage people, as U.S. predatory policies, limited civil rights and white settler exploitation chipped away at their wealth. Similarly, when Indigenous, Black or Brown people buy property today, a basic step in wealth building, their very presence in a neighborhood pulls down property values. This is because diversity in neighborhoods makes properties less desirable for many white buyers, who make up the majority of the U.S. homeowning market. This makes investing in property less profitable for people of color because we don’t receive the same returns on the investment.

Even when people of color achieve wealth, it doesn’t necessarily protect us from systemic racism. The Osage, who were the wealthiest people in the world at the time, still struggled to receive justice for the murders of their community members. Recent studies investigating maternal health inequities among Black communities demonstrate that they persist across class lines. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans, often harmfully dubbed “model minorities” because of their economic success, still faced relentless racial violence.

The reality is that wealth doesn’t protect people of color from the dehumanizing effects of racism.

Wealth simply brings to the forefront different kinds of struggles against racism: Wealthier communities are less diverse and can be a site of racism, violence and exclusion. You don’t have to look further than predominantly white prestigious schools and colleges for problems with racism and exclusion.

During my first semester at Columbia University, a prestigious Ivy League university, I experienced a hate crime that made national news. If anything, being in a predominantly White and wealthy space put me in a vulnerable position for racially targeted violence, which is far less common in my predominantly Black and low-income community. The reality is that wealth doesn’t protect people of color from the dehumanizing effects of racism.

Lack of wealth in communities of color is the fruit that blooms from the tree of systemic racism. Sustained wealth for communities of color is simply not possible in a viciously racist settler-colonial state. Moreover, we should question the impulse to point at money as a solution to racism. It is a capitalist notion that situates the realities of racial inequality as a product of individual economic “failings.” Communities of color shouldn’t have to be wealthy to get their basic rights to quality education, food, housing and a safety met. Building personal wealth is an important goal for many people, but the idea that personal wealth allows people of color to overcome racism is misleading.

Killers of the Flower Moon shared the difficult history of the exploitation of the Osage Nation’s people and wealth over 100 years ago. After the movie, I was left frustrated, as I’ve witnessed the same systems of inequality today. Calls for wealth building in communities of color through individual endeavors are well-meaning but ignore the systemic barriers that make wealth building impossible for most.

For meaningful change, we must address the systemic problems in housing, education and financial systems that fuel racial disparities instead of focusing on just individual wealth building.

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