How reparations would work today

A steep climb.
A steep climb.
Image: Jamiel Law for Quartz
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The unprecedented protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the growing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, have brought diversity and inclusion to the forefront of discussions in the US and around the world. They’ve also pushed the issue of reparations for the enslavement of African Americans to the political front burners in cities, states, and even the US Congress.

Arguments for reparations have moved beyond whether they should be paid. Today they are more focused on how they should be paid, and to whom.

Governments as geographically and politically distinct as Asheville, North Carolina, and the state of California have approved or are considering resolutions apologizing for slavery and approving reparations for their African American residents. Resolutions are at some stage of consideration in Evanston, Illinois; Providence, Rhode Island; and Burlington, Vermont.

The House of Representatives is expected to pass a decades-old proposal, HR 40, that would create a federal commission to craft an official government apology and proposal for remedies. Former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, has endorsed the bill, the first head of a major political party to do so since the legislation was first introduced by the late Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, in 1989.

Meanwhile, public support for reparations has skyrocketed. While a 2000 study by the University of Chicago found only 4% of white Americans supported reparations, a similar poll, conducted 18 months ago, found 15% of white Americans supported reparations. According to a July poll by Democracy in Color and Civiqs, that number is now 39%.

400 years of state-sanctioned racism

Black Americans have lived under the shadow of state-sanctioned racism for 400 years. The institution of slavery was followed by institutionalized discrimination; massacres and riots like those in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rosewood, Fla., New York, Philadelphia, and dozens of other American cities; lynchings; Jim Crow laws; “sundown towns” which banned Blacks entirely; redlining of housing; and the killing of unarmed Black men and women by police officers.

“Reparations are for the cumulative intergenerational effects of white supremacy,” said William Darity, professor of public policy at Duke University and co-author of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.

Remedies are complicated and while the conversation often starts with money, they go way past monetary considerations. Many solutions begin with tackling the huge Black-white wealth gap. Black Americans make up 13% of the nation’s population, but their share of the nation’s wealth is only 2.5%, Darity said. A report by the Brookings Institution from February says the net worth of a typical white family was $171,000 in 2016, compared to $17,150 for a Black family in 2016. It would take trillions to bring Black Americans’ share of the nation’s wealth to be commensurate with their share of the population, Darity said.

Some of the programs proposed by municipal and state governments propose closing the wealth gap by direct cash payments to affected Black Americans, through yet-to-be determined benefits that encourage economic growth and business development in the Black community. Other strategies include grants and awards to community social service organizations to combat health disparities and to help fix the years of psychological damage done by racism and discrimination.

Given the vast disparities in wealth, education, and health between white and Black America, there is almost no end to the projects that could be funded as reparations, if there were the political will to do so.

What form should reparations take?

US representative Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Wisconsin said the remedies for racial disparities could cost billions. “I don’t know if America could ever pay Black people back for what we have given,” she said. Reparations shouldn’t just include a cash payout to individuals, but that should be a part of it, she said. There also need to be changes in how wealth is created and expanded. “We need to burrow down into some of the institutional barriers.”

Reparations should start with policies and programs that deal with systematic and institutional discrimination, what she calls “low-hanging fruit.” The focus should be educational barriers, school funding, health disparities, and helping Black businesses get on their feet, she said.

Options might include putting funds into individual endowments, offering programs that would increase home ownership among Black citizens, and providing Black people with accounts that will give them direct access to those funds, she said.

“We need a really comprehensive report on the affliction and where you can achieve some equity and identifying ways to lift Black people up,” Moore said. “A lot of what white people have is based on (past) land grants. There might be more land grant opportunities for African American institutions and businesses.” She said a program might include funding for social services organizations that can provide healthcare and mental health support.

Darity argued payments should be made directly to eligible recipients, but not necessarily in cash. Assistance could be in the form of trust accounts or endowments that pay out over years. The key is those accounts must be under the discretion of the recipients, and not controlled by a third party.

Reparations in other countries have been done in a variety of ways, said Peter Dixon, a research scientist at Brandeis University who studies reparations. “In some instances, when people have been paid, they have received a single check,” he said. “In other instances, people have received a long-term pension. While it’s hard to say one is better than the other, if you look at the evidence of how people received the money, the pension seems to be a better approach because longer term it is a more sustainable approach. It helps avoid the problems that occur when people receive a major sum.”

For example, an MIT study found that lottery winners, because of their inexperience with large sums of money, are more likely to file for bankruptcy in three to five years than the average American.

“The truth is, in history, the amount of money has not been that high,” Dixon said of sums paid to individuals. “In some countries it’s been a few thousand dollars. In the United States, reparations for Japanese people put in internment camps during World War II were about $20,000. German holocaust victims received long-term pensions.”

In 2015, the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), a body of Black scholars and activists, adopted a 10-point plan (pdf) at the annual Congressional Black Caucus meeting. That plan called for, among other things:

  • A formal apology and establishment of a Maafa/African Holocaust Institute (maafa, the Swahili word for “great disaster” has been adopted in some circles as the term to describe the effects of the slave trade)
  • The right to land for social and economic development
  • Funds for cooperative enterprises and socially responsible entrepreneurial development
  • Resources for the health, wellness and healing of Black families and communities education for community development and empowerment
  • Affordable housing for healthy Black communities and wealth generation

While their proposals vary, most advocates agree on one point: Any form of reparations must include an apology.

“Apologizing is step number one,” said Moore, one of 154 co-sponsors of HR 40. “I don’t see where you can get anywhere without doing that. You can’t reverse history, but you can acknowledge and set for atonement.”

Reparations accompanied by an admission of wrongdoing are a key part of the justice process, Dixon said. “They not only help people who have suffered to improve their lives or achieve some better quality of life—whether that be financial, psychological, or physical help—but it is also about recognizing people as rights holders, people who have had their rights violated and people who were wronged. The acknowledgment part is important.”

Some US communities aren’t waiting for a comprehensive federal plan.

The city council of Asheville, a city in western North Carolina that is only 12% Black, unanimously passed a resolution approving slavery reparations in August. That was followed by a similar resolution from the Board of Supervisors in Buncombe County.

“I think for most people, when they think of reparations, they think you get a check,” said Asheville mayor Esther Manheimer. “That’s not what this resolution calls for. We’re trying to grow generational wealth through homeownership or minority business development and growth, creating the kinds of things that create generational wealth in the community and target the things that the white community has enjoyed, and the black community has not. We focused on household wealth and disparities. The fact that these incredible disparities are being more broadly recognized is important.”

Manheimer said the city and Buncombe County will form a commission to figure out which programs and policies need to be put into place. “Every community will be different and have different needs,” she said. “I think the issues of generational wealth, economic development, and business development are consistent themes. But there is not a one-size-fits-all.”

Darity said he doesn’t have a problem with resolutions like the one Asheville passed, but he strongly disagrees with the label. Their efforts, though commendable, should not be called reparations, he said. You can only do that with direct payments to the people who were wronged.

“It is impossible for states and municipalities singularly or collectively to deal with reparations,” he said. “They created the framework from slavery to 100 years of segregation, mass incarcerations, and police shootings of unarmed Blacks. But we need to treat the federal government as a culpable partner.”

Andre Perry, fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington and co-author of the article “Why We Need Reparations for Black America,” agrees municipalities should share the burden.

“Discrimination occurred at the federal, state, and local level,” he said. “The federal government owes Black people, but we should not forget that municipalities played a role and should play a role in the correction. It may not be in the form of financial reparations. But in terms of cutting a check, it is within the federal government’s purview because their policies made ways for other entities to discriminate.”

Who would qualify for reparation payments?

“Some of the challenges and tensions include a debate even within and among potential recipients of reparations for slavery,” Dixon said. “Some say reparations should be limited to those who have direct lineage to slavery. Others say if you look at the effects of slavery, not just the act of slavery, but every way that slavery has shaped American society. Look at Jim Crow, redlining, even police brutality.”

“I think it should be more maximalist than minimalist,” he continued. “You can’t just say the violation of slavery has been felt by direct descendants. It’s so much more. In other countries you see the same debate. The trick is that the balance has to be both morally and legally correct, but also politically feasible.”

Darity argues there are basically two criteria for eligibility for reparations payments. “An individual would have to demonstrate that one ancestor was enslaved in the United States.” Or, they would have to prove that they identified as Black, Negro, or African American at least 12 years before enactment of a reparations project or study commission. “They can do this by making public their response to the race question on the US Census,” he said.

Perry, meanwhile, said reparations should be based on three things: slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the historic racial discrimination policies in housing and the criminal justice system. “Certainly, we can use everything from genetic tests to records to find the descendants of slaves,” he said. “Then, you can clearly look at records to see who lived in areas that were redlined or where they were barred from certain areas. Other institutions have acknowledged that they participated in slavery and discrimination.”

Thomas Creamer, professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, who has been studying reparations for two decades, said there are historical precedents of a sort, in which slave owners were compensated when slaves were emancipated. When slavery was abolished in the Caribbean by Great Britain, slave owners were paid the equivalent of 40% of the UK’s national treasury, he said. “Loans were taken out and paid back between 1833 and 2015.”

“Haiti was forced to pay for abolishing slavery, from 1825 to 1947,” he said. These payments, the equivalent of $21 billion today, went to former French plantation owners. “France recorded all eligible recipients, owners, and their descendants. In Washington DC slave owners received reparations from the federal government of $300 per enslaved person for abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.”

He said corporations could contribute based on a model in post-war Germany. “Private companies that benefited from slave labor during World War II paid into a fund that the government formed. A lot of companies whose predecessors were involved paid. That might be a model that could work.”

In the US, private organizations are using their own records to identify eligible recipients.

Georgetown University is raising $400,000 a year to benefit the descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold to keep the college afloat two centuries ago. Princeton Theological Seminary implemented a $28 million plan that includes scholarships to descendants of enslaved Africans. Brown University, considered by many the model for programs like these, released a report in 2006 on its founders’ connection to slavery and created a center to research slavery and injustice.

Can we afford reparations?

Darity said that the amount of reparations should be dictated by the amount necessary to eliminate the wealth disparities between Black and white Americans. That would require an expenditure of $10 to $12 trillion, or $200,000 to $250,000 per eligible recipient over 10 years.

Creamer put the cost of slavery reparations alone—and not including subsequent discrimination or costs of Jim Crow laws—at $18 trillion to $19 trillion, which he called a “conservative estimate.” His formula is based on hourly wages at the time of slavery and the amount slave owners were paid when slaves were freed, with interest compounded at 3%. “Six percent is more realistic, but then you end up in the quadrillion dollars,” he said.

He said his estimate considered only slavery rather than including the systematic discrimination that came later because that’s what he had data on. “We know the slave population, or can estimate it for each year. And we know the wages for unskilled labor,” he said. “Many slaves were skilled, so the estimate is a low estimate.”

“Whether the full amount should be paid, that’s not up to me as a white scholar to decide,” he said. “I’m just calculating a conservative estimate of the losses.”

Darity said the payments should come from the same place as the $1,200 checks the government sent out as part of the CARES Act to individuals who suffered damage from the coronavirus. Those funds were drawn against the national debt, to be paid off through the sale of treasury bonds.

“It can be done without creating new taxes,” he said. “We embrace the principles of modern monetary theory. The only barrier to increasing federal spending is the potential adverse impact on inflation. To minimize inflation, we advocate doing it over 10 years.”

For some scholars, assigning a dollar value puts the cart before the horse. Recognition for the need for reparations should come first.

“There are ways to enumerate it,” said Julianne Malveaux, an economist and author. “The first thing to do is look at HR 40. I’m a member of NAARC. Our bottom line is, let’s pass legislation, then we can figure out how to enumerate. A lot of people get caught up with how much will it cost. The basis of this nation was enslaved labor. As soon as you get that, you get everything about enslavement and reparations.”

What are the obstacles to reparations?

Though the House appears poised to pass HR 40, the major obstacles to reparations on a national level appear to be the US Senate and the Republican Party. “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago when none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told reporters in June. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.”

When Buncombe County in North Carolina followed Asheville in approving a reparations resolution apologizing for slavery, the vote was 4-3, with all three Republicans opposed the resolution.

“The passage of reparations legislation will depend on how much support the legislation can garner from members of Congress from both chambers. It will require bipartisan consensus and support from the White House to become law,” Moore, the congresswoman, said.

Waiting for more than a century

Mary Frances Berry, an attorney, historian, and former chair of the US Civil Rights Commission, wrote a book about Callie House, a former slave who started a nationwide movement for slavery reparations in the early 1900s. As she describes in her book, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations, House, a mother of five, formed a nationwide organization with chapters and members who paid 25 cents a year. They met in churches and petitioned the US courts for reparations. The government eventually shut down the movement by charging House with mail fraud and sending her to prison in 1917.

“My own position is that if there are ever reparations, they should give them first to the people whose names are on those petitions,” Berry said. “Those people took great risks.”

Malveaux said she does not expect white Americans to ever acknowledge the need for reparations. “When Donald Trump has 30% of the population supporting him, when you see resistance to Black Lives Matter, you know these folks are not trying to do the right thing,” she said.

“The issue is the extent to which people don’t know American history,” she continued. “If they understand, they will understand the aggrievement of Black people. We’ve had knees on our necks throughout history. No one discusses the destruction of Black Wall Street. The burned down vital area of Black Tulsa. More than 1,000 people were displaced. Between 300 and 600 were killed. If we knew American history, we would be outraged. If we were collectively outraged it would be an American issue and not a Black issue.”

Berry said if the US had paid reparations back when Callie House was fighting for them, there would be no need for them today. “We knew how many people it was in 1890. It wouldn’t have been that much.”

“Whether or not we get reparations depends on Black people, not white people or any other kind of people,” she said. “It will happen if Black people want it and if we push hard enough. All kinds of things happen when you push hard.” When Conyers first introduced HR 40, he couldn’t even get the support of the entire Congressional Black caucus.

“Will it happen? I have no idea,” said Darity. “There are more grounds for optimism at this moment than any time in my lifetime. This is the moment.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the state Rep. Gwen Moore represents. She is from Wisconsin.