This story is part of Word In Black’s “Reparations Now” series exploring the fight for our modern-day 40 acres and a mule, and why Black Americans deserve justice.
The demand for reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black people is growing louder and more insistent.
In recent years, especially after the death of George Floyd, several states and local governments put together committees to research and report on the impacts of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation on Black American communities. However, these reports only take the conversation so far.
America needs a plan for restitution.
Darity is a professor of public policy, African and African American studies, and economics at Duke University in North Carolina. Much of his research focuses on inequality across race, ethnicity, class, and education.
Mullen is a writer, lecturer, and folklorist focused on race, history, art, and politics.
Together, they co-wrote the award-winning and highly praised book “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.”
The book not only provides proof of the need for reparations using historical accounts. It also provides a detailed plan for economic reparations, including an estimated total bill for past injustices and atrocities.
“The amount that would be required to eliminate the racial wealth gap in the United States, which is what we think should be a priority for a reparations plan, is at least $14 trillion,” Darity says.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found Black Americans hold about 4% of the total wealth in the United States. “Put another way: The wealth of the richest 400 Americans is approximately equal to that of 43 million Black Americans,” the report says.
In comparison, white Americans hold 84% of the total wealth.
As the racial wealth gap grows, access to equity in healthcare, education, housing, employment, and financial stability moves further from reach for Black folks.
“We simply want the federal government to do what it should, and that is to eliminate the racial wealth gap,” Mullen says. “For us, the racial wealth gap is a very clean, simple indicator of the cumulative effects of intergenerational white supremacy in this country.”
Word In Black spoke with the authors about the book, the importance of reparations, and how to make restitution a reality for Black Americans.
WORD IN BLACK: It’s great to speak with both of you. I’m reading ‘From Here to Equality,’ and it’s really well done. Within the first few chapters, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the ongoing fight for reparations.
So, what was the inspiration behind the book?
A. KIRSTEN MULLEN: We’ve been working on this subject for 30 and 20 years, respectively — 34 years for Dr. Darity and 20 for me. I was raised, as he was, in a family where race was always part of the conversation. I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and for the first 10 years of my life, there was legal segregation in Texas. And it was something that we were always trying to understand and get around as a family.
I was part of conversations about the 40-acre land grants. I can remember asking [about them]. I was always thinking about the condition of Black people. And seeing so many folks who are hardworking and persevering but who did not have a lot of material assets just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
I think Sandy (William Darity) can speak specifically about his experience and how the book itself came about. We had written about reparations together, but his experience writing about reparations goes back even further than mine.
WIB: I’d love to hear more.
WILLIAM DARITY: I was asked in 1989 to write the introduction for a book that subsequently was called “The Wealth of Races.” It was edited by Richard F. America, who asked me to write the introduction for it. At the time, it was a volume that consisted of a set of essays written by economists who were attempting to calculate how much was owed for a reparations plan. Or how much was the appropriate estimate of the bill for reparations.
I was a reparations skeptic at the time, and my immediate reaction was to tell Richard, you know, of course, I thought this was something that made great moral sense but was never going to happen. So why were we investing our time in trying to determine how much the bill should be?
Richard’s response to me was, “I want you to write the introduction. You can feel free to say whatever you want to say. You can say that the entire project is misguided if that’s what you prefer to say. But I want you to do it, and I want you to read these papers.”
In the process of working through these papers, I began to get the sense that this was so much the right thing to do that even if the odds were extremely long, it was something worth fighting for.
And then the book came about because I was giving a presentation at UNC-Chapel Hill on reparations. One of the people in the audience was an editor from the University of North Carolina Press. She came up to me and said, “You know, you really should do a book on this.”
That was in 2010 or so. So I asked Kirsten if she’d work on it with me, and it took about ten years to publish the work.
AKM: And we both had day jobs. (both laugh) We couldn’t just drop everything and focus solely on the book.
WIB: That’s really interesting. And I’m sure it took a lot of time because there’s so much history.
In the introduction and first chapter, you share a lot of instances in which reparations have already been fought for. And more often than not, been lost or didn’t happen.
The book starts with a few different junctures in time where some form of reparations could have been delivered and wasn’t. Are we at one of those junctures once again? Or are we missing the moment? Or have we missed the moment?
AKM: We certainly don’t think the moment has been missed. And I would say, yes, this is another opportunity for the United States government to make it possible for Black American citizens of U.S. slavery to become full citizens of this country.
At the end of the Civil War, the federal government actually did say that it was going to provide an asset, land, to the newly emancipated population. But then it pulled back and reneged on its promise to do that.
That would have been a huge change that would have made it possible for this community — 4 million people — to sustain themselves. To not only survive but thrive.
It might not be so horrible, except that at the same time, the federal government did provide land grants to white Americans. Not only the folks who were already here but individuals who were newly arrived from Europe. And not with 40-acre grants but 160-acre land grants.
Approximately 1.5 million white households received those land grants. Research shows that translates to about 45 million white individuals who are, today, benefiting from that single government policy.
The federal government has had a role to play. Often that role has been damaging to Black Americans and has led to the expansion of the racial wealth gap.
WIB: So if you’re saying we haven’t quite missed our moment to pursue reparations, do you think it’s something that could happen in the near future? Maybe in the next decade?
WD: I don’t know. It’s possible. Certainly, the current Congress is not going to enact a comprehensive national reparations plan.
So the question really becomes whether or not there’s sufficient American political momentum, not diverted by voter repression, to actually transform the American Congress in such a way that it will consist of elected officials who will do the right thing.
There’s a promising sign in the present moment.
If you go back to the year 2000, a survey was taken of American attitudes toward reparations. It found that only 4% of white Americans supported monetary payments as reparations for Black Americans.
If you come up to the beginning of this year, there’s a survey taken by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that put the percentage close to 30%. And a near majority of millennials, who are white, endorsed reparations for Black Americans in the form of monetary payments.
I’m not sure those developments can be cultivated into a full-scale movement in support of reparations at the federal level, but the possibility is there.
WIB: It sounds like having white American support is an incredibly important part of getting reparations for Black people. Is that a common thread in history?
I’m thinking about the Bethune-Cookman College mock trial mentioned in the first chapter. It seems like a similar thing where there’s agreement that reparations are something Black people deserve, but it’s never quite enough.
WD: Circa 2000, it was maybe about 60% of Black Americans who were in favor of it, and now it’s an excess of 80%.
There’s always been a solid segment of the Black community that adores monetary reparations. The reason we focused on the white numbers is that for this to happen politically in the United States, you’re going to need a near majority of white Americans to be in favor of it.
Our view is that this is something that must be done through congressional legislation. For that to occur, we don’t think it could if there continued to be a majority opposition from White Americans.
AKM: There have been instances of reparations efforts around the world that did not require majorities.
We know that international pressure, especially from countries and entities that matter to the United States, could make a difference. We’re interested to see what develops along those lines as well.
WIB: That would change the way we think about this.
But I’m thinking, to your point, Dr. Darity, on how this needs to be handled congressionally. The book argues it shouldn’t be handled by the judicial system because it’ll get nowhere, as we’ve seen for most cases.
WD: Even if it got somewhere, it’s not at all clear how the judiciary system will make sure that it happens. Because it doesn’t really have an administrative arm to activate its policies.
A key example or clear example is the fact that Brown v. The Board of Education decision was made in 1954, but we didn’t begin to have extensive desegregation of schools, at least on the facility level, until the late 1960s and early 1970s.
So the judiciary doesn’t really have a mechanism whereby it can absolutely make things happen.
Similar problem with international organizations like the United Nations. The U.N. actually has a working group on People of African Descent that endorsed reparations for Black Americans. But the U.N. doesn’t have any authority to make the U.S. government do it.
WIB: Nikole Hannah-Jones has made a point in her reporting over her career that schools are still very much segregated. It just looks different. But there isn’t an entity making sure schools and districts are treating their students equally.
And that there isn’t segregation happening at the hands of parents specifically.
Switching gears, a common argument against reparations is feasibility. You know, ‘It’s not possible’ and ‘Where’s the money going to come from?’. The book does a great job listing a few different ways in which reparations can be funded. What does your ideal version of reparations look like?
AKM: I think just as the federal government has made financial support available to Americans during the pandemic, Congress simply decided that was what they were going to do. They directed the Treasury to make those funds available. They did not tax Americans with the Cares Act program. And until very recently, there were no issues with inflation.
We, the federal government, absolutely do have the capacity to pay large sums without a tax burden on United States citizens. We’re not pushing for taxing Americans to pay the reparations debt — and we do see it as a debt, not charity.
This is a debt owed to Black American citizens since the end of the Civil War.
WD: The federal government is not constrained by its intake of tax revenues in the way in which states and municipalities are. And this is because the federal government actually issues our currency. States and localities do not.
We don’t think they can meet the reparations requirements precisely because they would have to enormously increase their taxes. The total existing budgets for all state and local governments is about slightly less than $5 trillion.
AKM: You’re talking about these states and localities spending two to three or more years of their entire budgets in order to eliminate this debt. It’s just not a likely scenario.
WIB: What’s the timeline for dishing that out? $14 trillion — that’s a lot of money.
AKM: They could issue all of those funds at once if they want or if they choose. Our point is that if you’re concerned about such a large payment being made in a single payment, then they could stretch it out. But we’d like to see that happen over 10 or fewer years.
But, you know, in addition to cash payments, and we think for symbolic and substantive reasons, reparations for Black Americans should include a check. It can also include more illiquid assets like trust funds and annuities. There are ways to stagger the expenditure by the eligible recipients of those funds by making some of them less liquid.
WIB: I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on California specifically. They recently came out with their [interim] report, which included somewhat of an equation for calculating how much Black Californians would get. Do you have any thoughts on California’s Reparations Committee’s proposal?
WD: As we pointed out, since we think the focus of a reparations plan should be the elimination of the racial wealth gap, the state of California cannot feasibly do that for its eligible Black residents.
We estimate it would take somewhere in the vicinity of $600 billion to $800 billion to achieve that goal just for the eligible residents. And the state’s budget is about $300 billion, I think, maxing out and fluctuating between running a surplus and running a deficit.
So they can’t do that.
What we ended up proposing in our advisory group was that they identify a set of harms or atrocities that occurred specifically in California. Then, set up some procedure for compensating folks for those harms and atrocities.
There’s still a difficulty. You have to limit the number of atrocities you pay for. And, you have to be careful about the amounts you assign, which may be less than what really is due, if you want to have a feasible project.
If you have a project that comprehensively tries to identify all the relevant atrocities and assign the corresponding amount to them, then you get into dollar values that aren’t really feasible for a state or locality to meet.
AKM: These are all things that the federal government has made possible for white Americans to do, but not Black Americans. We don’t begrudge white Americans. This is free equity — this handout for the federal government. We just think that it should have been distributed more equitably.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
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