What Is Owed

What Is Owed

William Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen’s case for reparations.


Reparations are having a moment. This march, Evanston, Ill., became the first government in the United States to attempt to address racial inequality by providing mortgage assistance and $25,000 homeownership and improvement grants to descendants of residents harmed by discriminatory housing policies in the city. Soon afterward, the US House of Representatives began hearings on HR 40, which would create a commission to study reparations for slavery and other forms of discrimination against Black people in the United States. President Biden expressed support for the study and reiterated that support at the commemoration of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., in May. Meanwhile, California became the first state to initiate an official task force to study and develop a reparations plan for African Americans harmed by slavery and its legacies.

Bolstered by the Black Lives Matter movement and last summer’s protests following the murder of George Floyd, support for reparations has also been aided by a growing awareness of the history of slavery and other forms of racial exploitation in the United States. In the past decade, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and other Black journalists have exposed a broad readership to the question of reparations as well as to the scholarship on slavery’s importance in the development of capitalism and American democracy, the racial inequalities inherent to New Deal social policies, and the causes and effects of mass incarceration. By doing so, they helped shift the discussion about racial inequality from a question of marginalization and oppression to a focus on the central role that Black people have played in the economic and political history of the United States. Despite the increasing awareness of this history, however, nearly two-thirds of Americans still oppose federal payments to Black people whose ancestors were enslaved. Opposition is strongest among Republicans, who view reparations as overly divisive and unjustified, but barely half of all Democrats, and only a third of white Democrats, support them.

In From Here to Equality, William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen draw on both journalistic and scholarly sources to make a strong case for cash payments to Black descendants of slaves. To those who dismiss reparations as a recent claim for an ancient crime, they point out that African Americans have been demanding compensation since the end of slavery and that the debt has been redoubled by officially sanctioned violence and discrimination since abolition. Likewise, to the “alarmingly large numbers of Americans, both white and black, who do not believe that racial inequality and discrimination continue to exist,” Darity and Mullen provide a detailed analysis of the deep disparities in wealth, income, education, and other measures of well-being that have persisted since emancipation.

Yet despite their clear evidence of the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow, Darity and Mullen isolate African American reparations from claims for compensation by Native Americans, immigrants, and others. Not only does this risk alienating potential allies, it also narrows the scope of what the Black freedom movement has almost always pursued: A radical program for economic and racial justice for all Americans.

The core of From Here to Equality is a rich historical account of how the economic inequalities between Black and white Americans were created and perpetuated through centuries of slavery and the legally enforced systems of discrimination and political disfranchisement that followed. Drawing on the work of Anne Farrow, Craig Wilder, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank, Darity and Mullen explain that slavery was integral to the national—not just the Southern—economy, and that its proceeds therefore helped establish some of the nation’s most prominent banks, insurance companies, and universities.

Emphasizing several periods when the United States might have taken a different path, they show how slavery became more durable and racialized in the colonial era and then expanded rapidly in the South after a brief period of ambivalence about it during the Revolution. They also explain how Abraham Lincoln and other Northern politicians sought to avoid conflict by appeasing Southern slave owners, and how their hands were forced by the recalcitrance of the Confederate states, rising opposition to the war among Northern whites, and the insistence of African Americans on turning the war into a fight against slavery.

In Darity and Mullen’s telling, the Civil War was a critical moment not just because it ended slavery but because it also raised the question of how the formerly enslaved would be compensated for centuries of unpaid labor. They cite the testimony of the formerly enslaved minister Garrison Frazier in 1865, who explained to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that “the freedom, as I understand it…is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves, and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.”

This testimony was the inspiration for Sherman’s famous Field Order No. 15, which would have distributed over 5 million acres of plantation land to formerly enslaved families along the Atlantic coast. A version of Sherman’s order was taken up by Congress, but in yet another missed opportunity to repair the damage done by slavery, Andrew Johnson vetoed it and returned the land to former slave owners.

But the Civil War was not the last missed opportunity, and a key component of Darity and Mullen’s case is that “the plunder” of Black America, as Ta-Nehisi Coates dubbed it, continued unabated throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Drawing on the work of Coates and other journalists, sociologists, and historians who have charted this pillage over the past century and a half, Darity and Mullen offer a story of dispossession, exploitation, and disfranchisement whose devastating costs, they argue, also “make the case for reparations.”

Having explored the centuries of injustice that now demand compensation, Darity and Mullen turn to the most common objections that they have encountered in the 15 years that they have spent researching and developing their case.

Over that period, Darity and Mullen explain, increased awareness of racial inequality has led to a multiplicity of reactions, from “challenging the legitimacy of reparations to asking questions about the logistics of a reparations plan.” Most of these objections are answered in previous chapters, but they also examine the claims that past injustices were addressed by emancipation, 20th-century social welfare policies, and affirmative action, and they show why all of these are clearly unsatisfactory in the face of the history they have recounted. Indeed, they argue, many of those initiatives—in particular welfare and affirmative action programs—not only failed to end racial inequalities but at times deepened them.

In the final chapters of the book, Darity and Mullen lay out a program for determining who is responsible for paying reparations, who would be eligible, how much would be paid, and how the funds would be distributed.

The detailed history Darity and Mullen present supports the moral and economic claims for reparations. Yet given the persistent opposition, it is puzzling that they describe the potential constituency for reparations in the narrowest possible terms. In written testimony submitted to a congressional hearing on HR 40, Darity suggested that the bill be amended to clarify that it would benefit only people who identify as “black, Negro, or African American” and have “at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States.” Acknowledging that this excludes “post-slavery immigrants” from Africa and the Caribbean, “whose own ancestors are likely to have been subjected to enslavement and colonialism elsewhere,” he suggested they could make their claims against the United Kingdom or France, but not the United States.

In addition to alienating potential allies, the exclusion of Black immigrants from reparations obscures not only the consequences of racism and segregation in the aftermath of emancipation but also the inherently international character of slavery and the inequalities it forged. The scholarship that Darity and Mullen draw on emphasizes the centrality of racial exploitation to the development of the United States, but it also demonstrates that the national story was, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, “but a local phase of a world problem.”

The historian Ana Lucia Araujo, in her “transnational and comparative history” Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade, shows that the demand for compensation in the United States has always been related to reparations movements in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. That tradition is carried on today by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, which links demands on the US government with a transnational movement seeking reparations for people of African descent.

To limit the scope of what could be an international movement is a missed opportunity, but it also overlooks the influence of the United States and its role in international slavery and racial inequality. As Araujo explains, the US government’s refusal to recognize Haiti weakened the Black-led republic at a time when it was attempting to establish economic independence from Europe and was revised only out of hope that African Americans could be resettled in the Caribbean after the Civil War. Since then, US political, military, and economic power has undermined the economic status of former slaves and their descendants in the Caribbean and Central America and led many of them to seek refuge and opportunity through migration to the United States. Certainly, the US government bears some responsibility for those affected by its imperial power.

And that responsibility does not end with people of African descent. Darity and Mullen’s account of slavery’s centrality to the economic development of the United States includes frequent references to “Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves,” and as Tiya Miles and other historians have shown, African American history has long been deeply intertwined with that of Native Americans. Commenting on the anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, Robin D.G. Kelley noted, “Any discussion of repair and reparations, of grieving and mourning the events of 1921 and its aftermath, must grapple with the colonial violence that made Tulsa or Oklahoma and its settler regime possible.”

Darity and Mullen acknowledge that Native Americans “could make a far more costly claim on the American government than black Americans,” potentially including the entire territory of the United States. Yet rather than casting Indigenous people as potential allies in the demand for reparations, they insist that such claims are “irrelevant” to the specific urgency of “the black reparations claim.”

Black West Indians and Latin Americans are not the only immigrants with a potential interest in reparations. Emphasizing the whiteness, education, and wealth that some immigrants have brought with them to the United States, Darity and Mullen conclude that “voluntary immigrants” who arrived after the end of slavery “have benefited from America’s Jim Crow regime and its established and ongoing racial hierarchy” and therefore share responsibility for reparations. But what of the Chinese and other Asian immigrants who were deprived of legal protections, landownership, and citizenship by racist exclusion laws; refugees from US military interventions in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and Central America; and Mexican “guest workers” and undocumented migrants who powered the “internal colonialism” that, according to the historian Mae Ngai, was also central to the economic development of the southwestern United States? As Erika Lee’s recent history of xenophobia shows, anti-immigrant sentiment has often been closely linked to anti-Black racism.

These histories may help explain why Asian and Latino Americans are far more supportive of reparations for slavery than white Americans, and why, rather than dismiss all immigrants as beneficiaries of racial inequality, we should ask which among them might find common cause in a movement to end it.

In the context of an increasingly racially diverse United States, the need for allies is an issue of strategy as much as of justice. Acknowledging that not enough Americans support reparations, Darity and Mullen caution that their proposals will not be possible without “a dramatic change” in national leadership and “an inspired national movement dedicated to the fulfillment of the goal of racial justice.” With African Americans holding steady at roughly 12 percent of the population, it is difficult to see how they could build such a movement on their own. Darity and Mullen suggest that support could also come from “whites descended from slave owners” who are seeking “atonement,” but guilt seems a weak foundation for a political alliance. It seems more feasible to build a coalition of those with an interest in repairing the damage done by slavery and other forms of racial exploitation.

But if we are to build such a movement, its demands have to go beyond just one group’s claims and one policy program alone. Darity and Mullen describe the goal of reparations as “sharp and enduring reductions in racial disparities, particularly economic disparities like racial wealth inequality, and corresponding sharp and enduring improvements in black well-being.” These are admirable objectives, but even with reparations and the reduction of these racial disparities in wealth, African Americans would still face other falling standards of well-being endured by Americans as a whole. For example, if Black families were equal to white ones, their median net worth would increase from $23,000 to $184,000, but most of their gains would go to a few wealthy households: 10 percent of Black families would control 76 percent of Black household wealth while just 1 percent would go to the poorest half of Black families. To use another metric, in an economically equal United States, African Americans would likely still be killed by police and be incarcerated at far higher levels than citizens of nearly every other nation in the world. Likewise, they would still likely fall victim to a health care system that prioritizes profit and a labor market that values productivity over humanity. Yet Darity and Mullen assert that “once the reparations program is executed and racial inequality eliminated, African Americans would make no further claims for race-specific policies on their behalf from the American government—on the assumption that no new race-specific injustices are inflicted upon them.”

In his opening address at the 1963 March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph characterized the Black freedom movement as a “massive moral revolution” aimed not only at securing equal access to voting rights, government services, public accommodations, and jobs, but also at creating a society where “the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality.” Americans of all races had a stake in that transformation, he explained, but “it falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property.” Darity and Mullen draw a far more modest lesson from the African American struggle against slavery, Jim Crow, and other forms of racial exploitation. Their demand for repayment of the wealth and income taken since the nation’s founding is worthy in its own right and would help address the deep economic disparities between Black and white Americans. Yet as Randolph suggested, the legacy of these freedom struggles is far more ambitious and revolutionary than the simple calculus of compensation.

Any political movement powerful enough to secure policies sufficient to repair the damage inflicted by centuries of slavery and other forms of racial oppression in the United States will also have the power to secure a more radical and enduring transformation of our social and political order, and it should do so for practical and moral reasons. To win reparations will require allies who have a shared interest in addressing the country’s history of racial exploitation, but it will also need more expansive forms of solidarity and systemic change. As Randolph observed over 50 years ago, Black people “are in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice, because we know we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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