Reflecting on the Past Year Since the Publication of From Here to Equality

Guest post by  William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, whose groundbreaking and critically acclaimed book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century was published one year ago this week.

The year since the publication date of our UNC Press book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (FHTE), has been one of the periods of deepest turmoil the nation has experienced, at least since the 1960s.

The pandemic turned our lives and the world upside down. While the vaccination process is now underway, there has yet to be any strong evidence of a decline in the infection rate from the coronavirus. In fact, new variants of the virus are emerging that may be resistant to the available vaccines.

On January 6, 2021, a coup d’état was attempted at the Capitol, inspired by Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen from him. 

There also have been some major developments specific to the black reparations movement, particularly responses that followed the burst of outrage  after George Floyd’s widely seen police murder. In particular, these include a number of private, local, and state initiatives labeled “reparations” and renewed activity to bring forward HR 40, legislation to establish a study commission to deliver proposals to Congress for African American reparations.

One of the innovative features of From Here to Equality is the presentation of a detailed reparations plan. We identify four central elements for true reparations.

The first element of the plan must designate black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States (between 1776 and 1865) as recipients of reparations. This is the community, we argue, whose ancestors were denied the promised 40 acres land grants as restitution for the years of bondage. This is the community that has borne the burden of the cumulative, intergenerational effects of American racial injustice, spanning slavery, nearly a century of legal segregation (the Jim Crow period), and ongoing atrocities like mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks, and persistent discrimination in housing, employment, and credit markets.

We contend that the most comprehensive economic indicator of the cumulative, intergenerational effects of American racial injustice is the gap in wealth between blacks and whites. Therefore, the second element of a reparations plan must be a procedure to eliminate America’s racial wealth gap. At present, the black American descendants of U.S. slavery constitute 12 percent of the nation’s population but possess less than 2 percent of the nation’s wealth. To bring the black share of American wealth into consistency with the black share of the population will require at least $11 trillion.

The third element must be a commitment to prioritize direct payment of reparations funds to eligible recipients. This is precisely how reparations were distributed to communities meriting compensation for grievous injustices in the past. Important examples are the German government’s payments to victims of the Holocaust, and the U.S. government’s payments to Japanese Americans who were subjected to mass incarceration during World War II. The principle here is to give eligible recipients full discretion over the use of the funds.

Finally, the fourth element is the requirement that the federal government, the culpable party, meet the bill. The federal government has maintained the legal and authority framework that upheld slavery, produced American apartheid, and ratifies ongoing discrimination. And the federal government has the demonstrated capacity to meet the bill, especially given the large, rapid expenditures made to cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

During the past year, we have written two opinion pieces making the case that the pandemic makes more glaring the need for black reparations. The key “pre-existing condition” that produces greater black vulnerability to the coronavirus is the lack of wealth.  A recent study led by Harvard physician Eugene Richardson, to which we contributed, demonstrates had black reparations already been paid, not only would the black infection rate have been markedly lower, but the infection rate would have been significantly lower for all Americans.

One of the major themes of FHTE is the horrific consequences of the nation’s failure to de-Confederatize in the aftermath of the Civil War. Instead of treating the formation of the Confederacy as the traitorous act that it was, leaders of the secession still are venerated as persons of integrity and distinction who went to war to prevent “northern tyranny” and to preserve states’ rights.

In FHTE, we showmaintenance of a social order of enslavement was the unequivocal motive of going to war for major spokesmen for the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, John Henry Hammond, Judah P. Benjamin, and Robert E. Lee. Moreover, there can be no doubt “[t]he Confederate States Consitution made explicit the centrality and permanence of slavery to the secessionists’ agenda [since] Article 1, Section 9…included the following absolute provision: ‘No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.’’

The defense of slavery with its accompanying declaration of black inferiority is the sentiment underlying the continued celebration of the Confederacy (our “heritage”) in a large segment of the nation’s citizenry. It leads to a decided commitment to the primacy of minority rule and runs in a straight line from the 1860s to the events of January 6, 2021 in Washington D.C.

Reparations must incorporate a determined effort to achieve, at last, de-Confederatization of American society. Therefore, we emphasize an important role for an educational component to the reparations plan we outline in From Here to Equality.

Many other individuals, organizations, localities and states have expressed sentiments running counter to the Confederate tradition. They have voiced a desire to respond in a positive way to the call for reparations, especially in the aftermath of the exposure of systemic racism epitomized by George Floyd’s killing at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. This has led to piecemeal, so-called “reparations” projects by cities like Evanston, Illinois and Asheville, North Carolina and the creation of a state level reparations commission in California.

A critical problem with these projects is it is impossible for them, separately or in combination, to approach the $11 trillion minimum threshold for closing the racial wealth gap. All state and local government budgets amount to $3.1 trillion. If they all were to devote their entire budgets to a reparations fund adequate to erase black-white wealth differences, they could not provide any services to their citizens for upwards of four years.

Donations by private individuals and organizations do not hold greater promise for meeting the black reparations bill. Suppose they could generate a reparations fund that attracted $1 billion donations on a monthly basis. It would take eight and one-half centuries to the $11 trillion minimum threshold.

We prefer to reserve the term reparations for a Congressionally legislated, federally funded program that would eliminate the racial wealth gap within at most a decade. We welcome individuals and cities to engage in whatever creative steps they might take to enhance racial equity in their immediate communities and elsewhere, but the most valuable action they can take from the standpoint of true reparations is to lobby and petition Congress to adopt needed legislation. It is misleading and a diversion that these local initiatives are mislabeled as “reparations.”

What legislation related to reparations is under consideration in Congress at present? At the moment, the magnet for reparations activity at the federal level is HR 40, a bill that has been present in some form since it was first introduced by the late Congressman John Conyers in 1989. It is being brought forward for markup by the House Judiciary Committee on April 14, 2021.

The markup session is important because the bill is unsatisfactory in its present form. Either it should be revised substantially or replaced altogether. It will not lead to true reparations as currently written.

HR 40 does not direct the Commission it establishes to develop proposals for black reparations that ensure black American descendants of U.S. slavery are identified as the eligible recipients, that the racial wealth gap will be eliminated by raising black assets to a level sufficient to equalize average black and white wealth, nor that direct payments will be made to eligible recipients.

Leaving the Commission’s deliberations entirely open-ended could result in proposals that declare a more elaborate apology or educational scholarships or housing vouchers or the existing piecemeal plans at the local level as sufficient. This is a risk too great to take for a mission as sacred as healing the nation’s soul for its accrued history of white supremacy.

It may be an opportune time to leapfrog HR 40 altogether and design the essential true reparations plan. We already have the roadmap in the pages of From Here to Equality.

William A. Darity Jr. is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics at Duke University.

A. Kirsten Mullen is a writer, folklorist, museum consultant, and lecturer whose work focuses on race, art, history, and politics.