Book Reviews

A Path Forward on Reparations?

By Richard Kahlenberg

Tagged criminal justiceInequalityRacism

From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century by William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen • University of North Carolina Press • 2020 • 416 pages • $28

Even before Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin brutally asphyxiated George Floyd on camera, launching national protests against racial inequality in America, the call to address our nation’s sordid history of racial oppression had been gaining steam. The argument for reparations—cash payments to the descendants of enslaved Black Americans—began to gain traction in 2014 when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations,” in The Atlantic.

President Donald Trump’s subsequent blatant race-baiting helped moved white Democrats to the left on race. In the 2020 Democratic presidential debates, most candidates, including Joe Biden, endorsed studying the issue of reparations—a change from earlier elections, when the idea was rejected out of hand.

Now comes William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen’s new book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, which may be the most comprehensive, sophisticated, and thoroughly documented examination of reparations yet. In chapter after chapter, Darity, a Duke economist, and Mullen, a writer, folklorist, museum consultant, and lecturer, painstakingly build the moral case for taking action. While the book does not lay out a politically viable path for its own proposed $10.7 trillion reparations plan, it nevertheless advances the conversation for other, more realistic, ways of making necessary amends.

Most of From Here to Equality is devoted to America’s heartbreaking history on race, including the repeated failure to make things right, generation after generation. To begin with, despite white Americans committing the original sin of enslaving Africans, there were early opportunities to reverse course, Darity and Mullen, both of whom are African American, suggest. “Throughout the seventeenth century, Blacks, white servants, and indentures frequently worked side by side in the service of white elites and were united by friendship, kinship, and shared grievances,” they write. Slavery ruined the lives of Black families, and it also indirectly depressed the wages of poor whites, they note. In 1676, the two groups “joined forces” in Bacon’s Rebellion in Jamestown, Virginia, torching the governor’s residence. But white elites quickly found ways to divide working-class whites and Blacks by instilling white contempt of Black people by, for example, prescribing 30 lashes for a Black person who dared challenge bullying by a white servant. This pattern of divide and conquer endures to this day.

The founding of the new nation in 1776 represented a missed opportunity to set things right, the authors suggest. Other new nations—from Venezuela to Colombia—would later couple moves to become independent of colonial rule with abolition of slavery. In the United States, “Black enslavement could have ended with the making of the new nation,” the authors write. “That was not the path taken.”

A second opportunity arose in 1861 when President Abraham Lincoln offered to compensate some slaveholders for liberating enslaved Black people. The offer was rejected, however, as historian John Stauffer acerbically noted, “because slaves generated far higher rates of return than stocks, bonds, or real estate. And it was hard to satisfy one’s sexual lust on a stock certificate.” Instead, the nation engaged in a tragic Civil War that cost 750,000 lives and many billions more in treasure than compensation would have.

A third major opportunity for the United States to redeem itself came during Reconstruction, and once again the nation fell short, as Darity and Mullen explain. For a brief moment, the United States pushed forward by abolishing slavery and giving Black people the vote. The latter development led to the election of Black legislators, and efforts to educate Blacks as well as whites. Moreover, at the suggestion of formerly enslaved Blacks, federal plans were made to provide each family with 40 acres and a mule. Alas, after Lincoln’s assassination, the plans for restitution never went forward. Even worse, the promise of basic equality was also undermined by a ruthless system of racial apartheid enforced by white terrorists for another century.

The civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s brought legal equality in the form of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but even then, efforts to advance reparations—by Malcom X and James Forman in the 1960s, and Representative John Conyers beginning in the 1980s—made no progress. Today, Senator Mitch McConnell argues, “[N]one of us currently living are responsible” for slavery, so the time for reparations has apparently passed.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew that class-based programs have the potential to unite work-class people across racial lines.

Darity and Mullen have a powerful retort to McConnell. To begin with, they suggest, compensation is due not just for slavery, but also for much more recent harms—Jim Crow segregation and other contemporary forms of discrimination. “Taken individually, any one of these three tiers of injustice,” they suggest, “makes a powerful case for black reparations.” Moreover, they argue, while it is true that payments of reparations in some other cases—for the internment of Japanese Americans and the Nazi Holocaust—were made more quickly, the fact that white Americans have tried to run out the clock on paying reparations should not be rewarded. “A national act of procrastination does not eliminate the debt,” they point out.

To the related argument that post-Civil War immigrants shouldn’t have to bear the burdens of compensation for slavery, the authors note that the question isn’t so much whether groups of individuals are personally culpable, but whether they “gained from the harm.” Part of the reason people have chosen to immigrate to the United States in the years since the Civil War is that America is a wealthy country. America’s economically attractive environment was in turn produced, they say, “in significant part, by the exploitation of Black labor both under slavery and thereafter.”

To their credit, the authors lay out a very specific proposal for reparations. But here is also where they run into trouble. For one thing, the authors would limit payment of reparations to those who can trace descendants to slavery and have in the past self-identified as Black. This limitation seems in tension with their argument that segregation and contemporary discrimination provide two-thirds of the rationale for reparations.

Moreover, the method Darity and Mullen use to calculate the price tag of reparations is problematic. The authors review several possible methods—examining the unpaid wages of enslaved people; the total purchase price of human enslaved property; and the value of land promised to formerly enslaved individuals but never delivered. The contemporary value of these estimates range from $14 billion to $42 trillion.

Instead of employing any of these techniques, however, the authors instead opt for a policy that would transfer enough money to eliminate the wealth gap between white and Black households on the theory that the gap is the result of “the cumulative economic effects of white supremacy in the United States.” They conclude: “To eliminate the difference will require a reparations outlay of $10.7 trillion, or an average outlay of approximately $267,000 per person for 40 million eligible black descendants of American slavery.”

This approach unnecessarily opens the authors up to the attack that differences in wealth between racial and ethnic groups may not be solely the result of discrimination. As Darity’s own research in Los Angeles has found, Japanese American households have a median net worth of $592,000, considerably higher than white households ($355,000). Presumably, this difference is not attributable to anti-white discrimination.

The much bigger problem with Darity and Mullen’s proposal is that the book fails to address the elephant in the room: the immensely difficult politics of reparations. In a June 2020 ABC/Ipsos poll, taken at a time of growing recognition of racial inequality, 73 percent of Americans said the federal government should not “pay money to black Americans whose ancestors were slaves as compensations for that slavery.” Filling in more specific details—a $10.7 trillion price tag—could reduce support further. While mainstream Democrats now say they favor studying the issue, of all the 2020 Democratic candidates only Marianne Williamson endorsed actual cash payments (of $500 billion over 20 years). “This is a terrible issue for Democrats,” says the Center for American Progress’s Ruy Teixeira. There is a reason that Black leaders with political power—from President Barack Obama to Congressman Jim Clyburn—have focused on alternative ways to promote equity.

So the authors leave the reader with a dilemma—if the horrendous racial history in this country requires action, as Darity and Mullen persuasively argue, yet trillions of dollars in cash payments to a relatively small constituency are politically impossible, what is to be done?

One idea would be to merge Darity and Mullen’s ideas about supporting wealth accumulation with a principle enunciated in the 1960s by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: that reparations should be extended to underprivileged people of all races, all of whom are hurting, through a broad, racially inclusive, Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.

Darity and Mullen are right to say that any remedy should center on wealth. While most social programs focus on income support, the authors point out that wealth is critical. With wealth, one can finance an education, start a business, buy a home in a safe neighborhood, and exert political influence. Moreover, as a moral matter, wealth accumulation, to a much larger extent than income, is a reflection of luck rather than individual effort. They write: “The primary source of the capacity for sustained wealth building for most people are inheritances, in vivo transfers, and the economic security borne of parental and grandparental wealth.”

To even the playing field for those who, through no fault of their own, lack those advantages, children in low-wealth families could be provided with federal financed savings bonds, akin to the “baby bonds” concept Senator Cory Booker has championed.

Darity and Mullen would surely object that a wealth program for disadvantaged people of all races is not true reparations, but others have seen the issue differently. In his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, King made the moral case for compensation for slavery. “The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes.” His answer, however, was not a solution that benefited only Black people, but rather a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged of all races.

King offered three valuable insights.

First, precisely because of America’s terrible history of slavery and segregation, a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged would disproportionately benefit Black people. This point is particularly true for wealth-based policies. As Darity and Mullen point out, because of the legacy of slavery and segregation, the wealth gap between whites and Blacks (10:1) is much greater than the income gap (1.7:1). Indeed, they note, “[T]he median net worth of whites in bottom the 20 percent of the nation’s income distribution is higher than the median net worth of all black Americans.”

Second, King saw that while racial discrimination is a central source of inequality in American society, it is not the exclusive one. Deprivation matters too. Accordingly, King wrote, “It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.” More recently, Black writer K.A. Dilday explained in The Atlantic why she supported Reverend William Barber’s multiracial Poor People’s Campaign over reparations limited to descendants of slavery: “While the suffering of blacks hits close to home for me, it also pains me to see someone of another race or ethnicity degraded by the way our country forces poor people to live.”

Third, King knew that class-based programs have the potential to unite working-class people across racial lines, where race-based programs divide the very political constituencies that make up the progressive coalition. King was mindful of the way that privileged whites had tried to divide disadvantaged people—going all the way back to Bacon’s Rebellion. King wrote to an editor of Why We Can’t Wait: “It is my opinion that many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights,’ which seeks to give special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment, joblessness, etc. and does not take into sufficient account their plight [that of the white worker]” Politics is about addition, not subtraction, and a reparations program that does nothing for low-income Black immigrants, Hispanics, Asians, and whites will be a hard sell.

Today, there is an additional concern, which is that reparations could become a political weapon that Donald Trump—or his successors—would surely exploit. Given the polling on reparations, says CAP’s Teixeira, the issue would be “toxic to any Democrat seeking to beat Donald Trump.” Rank and file Black voters, in particular, understand the importance of defeating Trump. During the 2020 Democratic primaries, Black voters did not gravitate to those candidates who were the furthest to the left on racial issues; instead, most Black voters were highly pragmatic, perhaps because they have borne the brunt of the 2016 election. As Theodore R. Johnson of the Brennan Center observed: “When it comes to presidential races, black voters, perhaps more than any other demographic, vote not for what might be gained but according to what might be lost.”

The moral force behind King’s approach derives from two sources: the fact that we need to address our painful history and the equally powerful idea that it is generally better to be inclusive of all people who are hurting. Precisely because Darity and Mullen make such a powerful case for action, it is imperative to shape policies that may actually become law and change the lives of people who desperately deserve a better deal. Despite its limitation, From Here to Eternity does indeed advance the ball down the field toward that more just future.

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Richard Kahlenberg a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the author or editor of 17 books, is writing a book on housing segregation.

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