Kirsten Mullen and William Darity. Photo by Justin B. Cook from jacket of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century
After of the outrage precipitated by the police killing of George Floyd, elected officials in several cities and states across the country rushed to champion what they are calling “reparations.”
Local initiatives of this type purport to acknowledge decades of atrocities directed against their black residents. These atrocities include housing discrimination (Evanston, IL and Asheville, NC, Kansas City, MO, Austin, TX), unchecked violent and abusive practices of police acting on orders of their commanding officer (Chicago, IL), enslavement of black people (Providence, RI), and “direct, indirect, intentional and unintentional harm” caused by racialized city contracts and residential policies (Austin, TX).
However desirable local initiatives of this sort may be, they cannot be described, legitimately, as reparations. To be precise, they are racial equity initiatives, and that is what they should be called—not reparations.
We insist that the term reparations be reserved for a comprehensive policy of redress for black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. Specifically, black reparations must refer to a project that eliminates the nation’s staggering racial wealth gap.
Indeed, true reparations must incorporate four essential elements:
First, eligible recipients must be individuals who have self-identified as black, negro, African American, or Afro-American for at least twelve years before adoption of a reparations plan or a study commission for reparations, and who have at least one ancestor enslaved in the United States. This is the community that has suffered accrued, intergenerational effects of slavery, legal segregation, sustained white terrorism, and ongoing atrocities like discrimination, mass incarceration, and anti-black police violence. This is the community whose ancestors were promised 40 acres land grants as restitution for the years of slavery, but the promise never was met.
Second, true reparations require the plan to erase the black-white difference in wealth by building black assets to a level comparable to those held by whites. The racial gap in net worth is a product of national policies that promoted white wealth accumulation and black wealth decumulation. The racial wealth gap is the premier economic indicator of the full effects of white supremacy, since the founding of the nation as a slave Republic in 1776.
As of late 2020, black American descendants of U.S. slavery are twelve percent of the nation’s population but only possess less than two percent of the nation’s wealth. Raising the black share of wealth up to the black share of the nation’s population requires an expenditure of at least $11 trillion.
Third, true reparations require direct payments to eligible recipients. In previous cases of group-based reparations, payments were made to members of the affected community, e.g. German payments to victims of the Holocaust as well as U.S. government payments to Japanese Americans subjected to mass incarceration during World War II and to families that lost loved ones during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It should be no different for black American descendants of U.S. slavery, who should have similar discretion over the use of the funds.
Funds should not be funneled through a third-party institution that denies eligible recipients full discretion.
Finally, the federal government is the culpable party and must pay the debt.
The federal government has conducted the policies that created the racial wealth gap, especially the post-Civil War failure to fulfill the promise of 40 acres while giving 160 acres allotments to 1.5 million white families in the western territories between 1862 and 1940. In the twentieth century, the federal government implemented home buying support policies in a racially inequitable manner via the discriminatory application of the GI Bill and practices of the Federal Housing Administration. Federal tax policy has aggravated the situation with its embedded unfairness in its impact by race.
Moreover, only the federal government has the capacity to pay the debt. The total budgets of all state and local governments combined amount to $3.1 trillion. Neither individually nor collectively can they meet an $11 trillion bill.
An examination of the Evanston legislation reveals that it is a “housing plan dressed up as a reparations plan.” That was the assessment of true reparations advocate and Evanston alderperson Cicely Fleming, who cast the lone vote against the initiative. It provides black Evanstonians who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 and were victims of redlining and residential segregation—and their descendants—$25,000 payments that can go toward purchasing a new home or making improvements on an existing home in the city.
Evanston’s plan has many weaknesses. A key problem is the constraint on the funds being limited to housing alone. This denies recipients full discretion over the use of the funds and ignores the fact the black asset deficits extend over other asset categories besides a home.
Indeed, there is a black homeownership deficit. Only 47 percent of black households own homes in contrast with 73 percent of white households. But the gap in other categories of asset ownership are dramatic. Twice as many white households own retirement accounts, business equity, and publicly traded stocks than black households.
Nationally, primary residences constitute 24 percent of household net worth; business interests, financial assets, and retirement accounts constitute 62 percent of household net worth.
The Evanston plan does nothing to address the racial equity gap in housing produced by segregation and redlining. Nationally, homes in neighborhoods with no black residents are worth a median value of $341,000; homes in neighborhoods with majority black residents are worth $184,000. The average equity held in white-owned homes is $216,000; equity held in black-owned homes amounts to $96,000.
Moreover, the Evanston plan may do little to affect homeownership, anyway. The median price of a home in Evanston is $432,000. A $25,000 outlay is six percent of the total value of the median priced home, while the typical down payment on a home is twenty percent of the total price. In this case, that would be $86,400, more than three times the Evanston grant.
At present, the number reached will be relatively small. The initial outlay of $400,000 will go only to 16 households. The projected $10 million outlay is not assured because of the unstable source of revenue, a cannabis excise tax.
Indeed, the harms to be remedied demand federal reparations. Redlining was a federal policy applied nationwide and requires a national remedy. All the victims of Evanston’s housing policies during the relevant fifty-year interval are not current residents of the city.
The greatest danger is local “reparations,” like Evanston’s program, can divert the nation from achieving full restitution.
Evanston’s local housing voucher plan lacks attributes, even on its own scale, that contribute to true reparations. It supports the illusion that it is possible to make headway in erasing the black-white wealth gap by enacting a series of piecemeal proposals at the local and state level as acts of racial atonement. In fact, opponents of black reparations will be able to argue that local and state action is the way to do this—to preserve local choice and states’ rights—and, therefore, there is no need for the federal government to act.
Sadly, some long-standing advocacy organization have lent their credibility to these piecemeal efforts by championing them. What they tout as a dramatic victory for the reparations movement is, in fact, a pyrrhic victory for the cause of redress. Mislabeled as reparations, steps like the Evanston plan and similar local initiatives, ultimately, subvert the case for essential federal action.
William Darity Jr. is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, Economics, and Business at Duke University. A. Kirsten Mullen is the founder and director of Artefactual, an arts and museum consulting practice. Together, they are the authors of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (2020).