Advocates for Black equality call many things “reparations” – educational programs, housing assistance, health care clinics, even efforts to foster reconciliation between the races. But there is a scholar who maintains that only one definition of the word fully addresses the harm done to Black Americans by slavery and discrimination:
Cash. From the federal government. Trillions of dollars in cash.
That’s the belief of Duke professor William “Sandy” Darity Jr., co-author with his wife, A. Kirsten Mullen, of the book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. He bases this argument on the persistence of the wealth gap between Black and white households, which he says is the best measure of what has been taken from African Americans. Darity is an important voice in the growing reparations movement, and his insistence that a federal program is the only path to full justice is a strong counterpoint to local reparations efforts underway in at least 11 cities and the state of California.
First published in 2020 and with a new paperback edition out this month, From Here to Equality builds the case for addressing harm that official government policies delivered to Black people – not only during slavery, but through Jim Crow and up to the present day. Darity, an economist, is trained to quantify the damage: “The discount rate on Black humanity has been enormous,” he and Mullen write. “… even after the end of Jim Crow, Black lives are routinely a worth approximately 30 percent that of white lives.”
After setting the historical stage, Darity and Mullen take time to rebut the most common objections to cash reparations. One of their important contributions is to offer a definition of who should receive compensation: any person with an enslaved Black ancestor, who also identified themselves as Black on an official government document at least 12 years before any reparations program begins. (They do not support the currently stalled H.R. 40 bill in Congress, which they view as flawed and insufficient.)
The most timely portion of the book lays out specific, compound-interest calculations of how – and how much – to compensate African Americans. (These figures are updated in a May article by Darity, Mullen and Marvin Slaughter in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.) The section points out that funding need not be disbursed all at once, and that the government has provided other multitrillion-dollar outlays in the recent past.
Altogether, the book is a bold, pragmatic argument that helps move reparations from the fantastical to the possible. I recently spoke with Darity about his work and philosophies.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity:
You began to seriously study reparations when you were asked to write the forward of a 1990 book of essays, The Wealth of Races: The Present Value of Benefits from Past Injustices. How would you describe your attitude about reparations when you first came to the subject?
I was in the camp of people who viewed reparations as something that was morally just but impossible to happen. And I was thinking, since this is so unlikely, that it was actually somewhat of a waste of time and energy trying to pursue it and advocate for it. But after I started reading these essays and reflecting on the message that was embedded in them, I concluded this was the right thing to do, even if the odds were long. I was going to try to make reparations happen, both from the standpoint of doing serious research about the topic, as well as being an advocate for the policy.
I’ve had a similar evolution.
I came to recognize that there’s a host of things that we frequently have thought were impossibilities, and then yet, somehow, they became possibilities. But they only became possibilities because there were some folks willing to push for them. One example is [ending] slavery itself. If it was 1817 in the United States, you might be convinced that slavery would never come to an end. If it was 1953 in South Africa, you might think that the apartheid system would never come to an end. But that didn’t mean there were not people who resisted.
Most of your book is a detailed accounting of American racism and white supremacy. It was difficult to read.
A lot of people have asked us how painful it was to write this. I think it was more difficult for my wife than it was for me, because I’ve been doing research on the history of slavery for a long time. So I wasn’t quite as shocked by some of the new things that I learned as she was. But, yeah, it’s not a fun topic.
Is there one fact or injustice that’s the most striking to you?
You use the term ‘most striking,’ and I like that adjective because that’s different from asking which was most important. I couldn’t answer that. But what’s most striking to me in terms of the atrocities are the 100 massacres that took place from the Civil War into the mid-20th century, where Black lives were taken by white terrorists and Black property was seized and appropriated by white terrorists. I think most Americans have no idea that there were actually 100 of these episodes, all across the country, dating from at least 1862 or so in New Albany, Indiana, to Detroit in the 1940s.
How close did reparations come to happening at the end of the Civil War when Black people were promised 40 acres and a mule, before President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and his successor, President Andrew Johnson, reneged on the deal?
This is a context where it’s important to get the numbers right, because there is some misinformation afoot. Special Field Order No. 15 was issued by Gen. Sherman, about four days after he met with a group of representatives of the Black community, virtually all of them ministers, in Savannah, Georgia. Sherman met with them in the presence of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton’s presence was at the behest of President Lincoln. So the Special Field Order which emerged from that conversation was an official project, something that Lincoln had approved. People frequently say the Special Field Order allocated 400,000 acres of land, which was settled by 40,000 of the freedmen. It is true that only 400,000 acres of land were settled by 40,000 freedmen before President Andrew Johnson reversed the policy and restored that land to the former slaveholders. But if you look carefully at Special Field Order Number 15, it actually allocates 5.3 million acres of land to the freedmen. It allocates a swath of the Atlantic coast 30 miles wide extending from the sea islands of South Carolina to northern Florida, at the border of the St. John’s River.
That blew me away. I never knew that large of a tract of land was set aside for freed slaves.
So at the end of the Civil War there’s 4 million or so emancipated folks, and if you’re talking about 40 acres per family, which is 10 acres per person in a family of four, in principle, there should have been 40 million acres of land allocated to the freedmen. Instead, there was none. And at the same time, 1½ million white families over the course of the next 30 to 40 years get 160-acre land grants in the Western territories of the nation under the Homestead Act of 1862. So we argue in the book that that’s the beginning of the racial wealth gap in the United States.
You write that America had an opportunity to do the right thing, and had those lands been given as promised, reparations would not be needed now. If Lincoln had not been assassinated, would the land have been – I don’t even like the word “given” – do you think the land would have been provided?
I do. Everything was disrupted by Andrew Johnson. … The story is that John Wilkes Booth heard Lincoln give a speech where it was clear that he was going to give the vote to Black men, and Booth said at that point, ‘I’m going to kill him,’ and proceeded to do exactly that.
The book describes many post-Civil War atrocities, but they’re committed by private citizens. What’s the argument for holding the federal government responsible for those acts?
The federal government is responsible for those acts because it never undertook any effort to punish the private citizens operating singly or in a mob, and in some instances, the federal government actually had a complicit role. In many instances, the federal government played a direct or indirect role in supporting the terrorist actions. So it strikes me that ultimately it’s the federal government that has to bear the responsibility for compensating for all of these harms associated with the way white supremacy has been executed in the United States.
Have you seen any shift in receptiveness to the concept of reparations since the book first came out?
Yes. When we wrote the book, we started with a survey that was conducted in the year 2000, which found that at the beginning of this current millennium, 4% of white Americans endorsed monetary payments as reparations for Black Americans. By the time we published the book in 2020, survey data indicated that that percentage was closer to 15%. But in the aftermath of 2020, surveys are closer to 30% of whites endorsing monetary reparations for Black Americans. That’s still not 50%, but it’s significantly better than 4%. And it opens the possibility of this kind of momentum shift that makes it plausible to reach a point where it would be likely that the United States Congress would actually enact a comprehensive reparations plan. So that’s one of my great sources of optimism. Kirsten and I have said that if we could get somewhere in the vicinity of 45% of white Americans to be in favor of reparations, then we’re in an environment in which it could be plausible for congressional action to take place.
I think they create an obstacle to a federal program because they are insufficient for meeting what we view as the primary goal of a reparations plan, which is to eliminate the racial wealth gap. We’ve estimated that at the national level, it would require an expenditure of $14 trillion, at least, to eliminate the gap. The combined total for state and local budgets, in the most recent data that I’ve been able to define, is $4.68 trillion.
One illustration of the obstacle is Evanston itself. We estimate a conservative amount that would be required for Evanston to close the wealth gap for its own Black residents would be at least $3 billion. The city’s annual budget is about $360 million. They have this peculiar plan, which is really what we call a housing voucher plan, where they’re going to spend up to $10 million to provide individuals who were harmed by housing discrimination, or their descendants, $25,000. But $25,000 out of a total of $10 million will reach 400 people. And there are at least 2,500 to 3,000 individuals who should be eligible. So what you ultimately are doing is setting up a lottery for people to receive reparations.
You know, if they didn’t call it reparations, I wouldn’t feel as upset about it. If they said it was a housing voucher plan, some kind of social equity initiative, OK. But reparations means that you’re signaling to the rest of the country that you have adopted a program of restitution for Black Americans. And there’s no way that individual cities or states can actually provide the level of restitution that’s warranted.
You write in the book that “the work of national memory and national consciousness” is an essential component of reparations. Why is that so important?
It’s critical to the extent that you believe people will be persuaded to change their point of view if they’re better informed. Of course, that’s not the case for everybody. There are a lot of Americans who are impervious to good information. But hopefully there are a lot of Americans who are receptive to learning something new, and then proceeding to make decisions about what policies they support on that basis. We are embracing the view that there’s an enlightenment dimension to creating an effective movement for reparations for Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States. We think if you have a more accurate story about the nation’s history, if you have a more accurate memory of the nation’s past, then you’ll be in a better position to move towards the compensation that’s merited.