How reparations for American descendants of slavery could narrow the racial wealth divide
On June 19, activists and lawmakers gathered for a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the topic of reparations — whether the United States government should provide compensation to the descendants of slaves.
The issue, which remains controversial, has recently gathered momentum thanks to the attention given to the proposal in a House bill (H.R. 40) that would establish a congressional commission to study and develop reparations proposals. H.R. 40 has received support from several Democratic presidential candidates including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Marianne Williamson.
Given this momentum, it’s important that we are clear about the motivations at play. There has been an unfortunate tendency to limit the black reparations to the atrocities of slavery. Slavery is the crucible from which these claims were formed, but black reparations encompass even wider and more far-reaching harms. Some commentators even refer narrowly to “slavery reparations.” This is wholly inadequate.
Slavery is the crucible from which these claims were formed, but black reparations encompass even wider and more far-reaching harms.
One of the important — and desirable — features of H.R. 40 is its recognition of the full scope of the case for black reparations. While the bill has restrictions that merit revision, the opening portion of the proposed legislation clearly indicates the scope of this endeavor. The bill would “establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”
The cumulative damages inflicted on black Americans who were enslaved and their descendants of course include slavery, but they also encompass almost 100 years of Jim Crow legal segregation and persistent racism in the post-Civil Rights era continuing to the present. The latter is manifest in mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks (de facto lynchings), discrimination in employment, and, significantly, the enormous racial wealth divide between black and white Americans.
There are at least two ways to gauge the magnitude of the gulf. First, black Americans hold less than three percent of the nation’s wealth, despite constituting 12 to 13 percent of the nation’s population. Second, data from the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances indicates that the average black household has a net worth $800,000 less than the average white household.
A comprehensive reparations program must set as a primary objective the elimination of the racial wealth divide, which is a product of unjust differences in the capacity of blacks and whites to transfer resources across generations. The inequity began with the failure of the U.S. government to provide the formerly enslaved with the 40-acre land grants they had been promised at the close of the Civil War. It was extended by the provision of substantial land grants to newly arrived white immigrants in the late 19th century under the Homestead Acts and sustained by the destruction of black lives and accumulated property through a wave of dozens of massacres and terror campaigns stretching from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Chicago to Detroit between 1870 and 1945. The inequity was further perpetuated by national policies that sanctioned restrictive covenants, redlined predominantly black neighborhoods and gave whites disproportionate access to the benefits of the GI Bill.
Closing the racial wealth gulf will require overcoming the effects of this grim historical trajectory. A program of black reparations should move the share of wealth owned by blacks at least to 12 to 13 percent, corresponding to the black proportion of America’s citizenry. To put it another way, a program of black reparations should raise the average black household’s net worth by $800,000 to put it on par with the average white household.
Setting the size of the reparations fund can begin with a calculation of today’s value of those long-ago promised 40 acres. The most conservative estimate of the total amount of land that should have been allocated to the 4 million freedmen is 40 million acres. The present value of an overall land grant of that size is approximately $1.5 to $2 trillion. If there are about 35 million black Americans who would be eligible for reparations, this minimum (or baseline) estimate would amount to $40,000 to $60,000 per person.
The fund can be mobilized in a variety of ways. It could include opportunities for eligible recipients to apply for awards to support asset-building activities, including homeownership or business development. Some portion of the fund could be devoted to community or institution-based purposes, for example, support for historically black colleges and universities. But an essential component of a reparations program, for both substantive and symbolic reasons, must include a significant direct payout to eligible recipients.
Past instances of reparations — American restitution to Japanese Americans for unjust incarceration during World War II and German restitution to victims of the Holocaust, among them — have entailed direct payments to the beneficiaries. Why should reparations for black American descendants of slavery be treated any differently?
An essential component of a reparations program, for both substantive and symbolic reasons, must include a significant direct payout to eligible recipients.
Indeed, black reparations should target specifically black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. This targeting can be achieved by utilizing the following two criteria for eligibility for receipt of restitution: 1) an individual must demonstrate that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States, and 2) an individual must demonstrate that for at least 10 years before the enactment of a reparations program or a study commission of the type designated in H.R. 40, whichever comes first, they self-identified as black, Negro, or African American. These criteria embody a lineage/genealogical standard and a self-classification standard. They do not impel skin shade or DNA tests.
These criteria do omit blacks whose families migrated to the United States after slavery ended. The post-slavery immigrants are distinguished from black American descendants of slavery in at least two ways: their families migrated here voluntarily rather than via forced migration and, unlike those persons formerly enslaved in the United States who were promised the 40 acres (or at least 40 million acres of land to all 4 million of the freedmen), more recent black immigrants do not have a claim on the federal government for the unmet promise.
Certainly, black people throughout the diaspora all have legitimate potential claims for reparations, but they not all have a legitimate potential claim on the United States government. So, for example, Jamaican blacks have a claim that should be directed against the United Kingdom, Haitian blacks have a claim that should be directed against France, and Surinamese blacks have a claim that should be directed against the Netherlands. Black American descendants of slavery have a claim that must be directed against the United States.
There are other groups whose grievances may warrant redress from the federal government. But they should make their own unique case, not collapse it into the native black American claim for full citizenship and justice. Indeed, there seems to be an inconsistency between the attitude taken toward other claims for reparations and the black American claim. For example, no one proposed that any other group claim for reparations should ride piggy back on the Japanese American claim for restitution for unjust incarceration during World War II. But, oddly, the claims or possible claims of others somehow are attached to or are invoked as an objection to native black American reparations.
Monetary restitution has been a centerpiece of virtually all other cases of reparations, both at home and abroad. While some commentators are concerned that money is “not enough,” money is precisely what is required to eliminate the most glaring indicator of racial injustice, the racial wealth divide. Respect for black American citizenship will be signaled by monetary compensation. Payment of the debt is, as Charles Henry puts it, “long overdue.” H.R. 40 provides an opportunity to begin the process of fulfilling the long-standing national obligation.
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