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Eliminating the Racial Wealth Gap: The Case for Reparations for Black Americans

Reparations event image
Mar 8 2021
Hannah Kunzman

At the end of the American Civil War, Union leaders issued military orders promising land to formerly enslaved families. This promise, now known as “forty acres and a mule,” was later reversed, and the United States government continued to enact legal measures that compounded the economic effects of slavery.

On February 25, 2021, Duke public policy professor William A. Darity Jr. and writer A. Kirsten Mullen, authors of the book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, argued that the continued failure to make amends is why the solution to racial economic inequality “must be reparations.” As the authors noted, “The federal government has the responsibility to meet the bill.”

The conversation, moderated by Stanford Law professor Ralph Richard Banks, was co-sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, the Stanford Basic Income Lab, and the Stanford Center for Racial Justice.

For Darity and Mullen, reparations is a program of “acknowledgment, redress, and closure.” It is not enough to merely recognize that Black Americans have suffered historical harm; there must be steps taken to eliminate the effects of this harm. Darity argued that “we need to end the conditions of structural racism, but reparations require us to compensate for the effects of structural racism.”

The authors identified three phases of American history that drive the need for reparations: slavery; legal segregation and mass murder by white supremacists; and the post-Civil Rights period marked by housing discrimination, mass incarceration, and economic inequalities resulting from the intergenerational effects of white supremacy. “We’re talking about compensating Black American descendants of US slavery for past repression and exploitation, while also dramatically decreasing the stubborn existing obstacles to full citizenship,” Mullen said.

To that end, reparations should be direct cash payments that go to all eligible recipients, regardless of current economic status. According to the authors, the monetary sum should be enough to eliminate the racial wealth gap — currently, Mullen said, the average Black household has $840,000 less in net worth than the average white household. In order to receive these payments, recipients must be able to trace their lineage back to slavery. Darity argued that Black immigrants from other colonized countries who arrived after the abolishment of slavery in the United States are not eligible for these specific payments because they were not connected to the denial of the “forty acres” promise.

Darity and Mullen also addressed the concept of “piecemeal reparations,” or reparations at the local and state level. They asserted that because the United States federal government authorized the three periods of atrocity, it must be accountable for the bill for reparations. Moreover, they noted that, unlike state or local governments, the US government has the capacity to pay the bill — which would be an expenditure of around 10 to 12 trillion dollars. As such, they argued that any state or local level “reparations” cannot be considered reparations at all. In a similar vein, Darity noted that research allocations or centers for racial injustice could not be considered reparations — although they may be important in their own right. “These types of steps to reverse an ongoing harm are desirable, but they do not effectively heal the wound produced by the harm,” Darity said.

When asked about the cultural aspects of racial inequality, Mullen noted that “one of the things the events of January 6 made crystal clear to anyone who was watching is the continued effects of the power of the confederacy.” This continued legacy underscores the importance of the educational programs included in the authors’ plan for reparations. These programs include curriculum instruction not only for grade schools but also for colleges and universities, in the hopes that, according to Mullen, “we don’t find ourselves in this same place down the road.”

Although the US government is ultimately responsible for reparations, the authors believe that other institutions — including universities — can also play a role. Darity highlighted how universities are deeply connected to slavery and continue to reap the historic benefits. Both Darity and Mullen voiced their hope that universities can do more than simply study the problem and instead consider themselves to be a part of a movement.

“I think they should lead the charge for a national form of reparations for Black Americans,” Mullen said, suggesting that universities could lobby and petition the government to pay reparations or even fund a national lobbying program.

Both noted that their plan for reparations does not focus on individual guilt; however, they said that individuals could support reparations efforts with their own resources. Mullen recalled how the city council of Durham, North Carolina, passed a resolution advocating for national reparations. “One could get a copy of that document, scratch out Durham, North Carolina, put your own city in there, put your own name, your family’s name, your ultimate frisbee group, your artisanal beer drinking-group…and send that onto Congress,” Mullen suggested.

Ultimately, Mullen and Darity view reparations as more than a conversation. “An apology and a conversation are important and vital, but not sufficient,” Darity asserted. Reparations are necessary to provide redress and closure for the historical and ongoing harm towards Black Americans. As Mullen told the audience, “the project of reparations is one of huge challenges — and great promise.” 

Hannah Kunzman is a rising senior majoring in Philosophy & Religious Studies with honors in Ethics in Society who is interested in the intersection of religion and political theory.


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