True Reparations Are a National Debt: Localities and Individuals Should Not Foot the Bill and Cannot Build Systemic Remedies Alone

February 25, 2020

The reparations debate is longstanding and deep-rooted. In our forthcoming book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century (University of North Carolina Press, April 2020), we advance the following general definition of reparations: “a program of acknowledgement, redress, and closure for a grievous injustice.” Acknowledgement is the admission of wrong and the declaration of responsibility for restitution by the culpable party. Redress is the act of restitution—compensation for the wrong—carried out by the culpable party. Closure is the settling of accounts between the victimized community and the culpable party—the arrival at conciliation.[1] Closure means that the debt has been paid and that the victimized community will make no further claims for restitution, barring the occurrence of new atrocities or the recurrence of old atrocities.

The specific case for reparations for black American descendants of US slavery is predicated on 1) the cumulative damages of slavery; 2) nearly a century-long epoch of legal segregation (known as the Jim Crow era) and white terrorism; and 3) the ongoing harms of racialized mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks, credit, housing, and employment discrimination, as well as the enormous racial wealth gap. We do not assign blame for this litany of harms to specific individuals or institutions. We must emphasize: Black reparations are not a matter of personal or singular institutional guilt; black reparations are a matter of national responsibility.

In our estimation, black-white wealth inequality is the most powerful economic indicator of the full effects of racial injustice in the United States. Black Americans constitute about 13 percent of the nation’s population but own less than 3 percent of the nation’s wealth. Although there are many ways to calculate reparations, including an estimation of the present value of the time stolen from the enslaved or the present value of the 40-acre land grants promised—but denied—to the freedmen, we believe that a true reparations policy must make the black wealth share at least consistent with the black share of the American population. This will necessitate building the eligible black American level of asset holdings by $10 to $12 trillion, or approximately $250,000 for each black individual.

So, who should pay the bill? In From Here to Equality, we argue that the culpable party is the United States government. Authority is constructed and contextual, and all three phases of atrocities catalogued here were products of the legal and authority framework established by the federal government. In many instances, the federal government further sanctioned racial atrocities by silence and inaction.

This means, in turn, that local or piecemeal—little by little—attempts at racial atonement do not constitute reparations proper. In many instances, local initiatives that parade under the label of “reparations” are not that at all. Local government actions called “reparations”—whether at the state or municipal level—frequently constitute an admission that atrocities have been committed followed by allocations for research, or the construction of centers, rather than compensatory payments to black Americans. However, these scattered steps to stop an ongoing harm do not heal the wound produced by the harm; usually, they do not involve any compensatory payment.

Even if they do afford compensatory payment, a series of local initiatives is highly unlikely to match the minimum bill for black reparations. As we noted above, it will require at least $10 trillion to eliminate the black-white wealth disparity. Taken separately or collectively, there is no evidence that local “reparations” will come close to addressing the full scope of the measured harm or achieving an appropriate level of restitution.

A Look at Piecemeal “Reparations”

Efforts are underway in Maryland to establish a fund that would provide support for in-state college tuition and low interest loans for mortgages to persons who can provide proof that they are descendants of an ancestor enslaved in the state of Maryland. Indeed, the present version of the proposed legislation has a provision for “applicants [who] can provide concrete proof of how many years of forced labor their ancestor endured [to] be eligible to receive back pay for that person’s lost wages.” However, the current plan would permit persons who are living as white and have an ancestor enslaved in Maryland to qualify for access to the fund.[2]

This strategy potentially creates huge inequities in the outlays across descendants of the enslaved, so, here are several questions that demand answers. Would multiple descendants be eligible to receive lost wages from the same ancestor? Would a general application of the Maryland principle across all states exclude black descendants of US slavery now living in states other than the ones where their enslaved ancestors were captives? What is the logic of giving the unpaid wages of a single enslaved ancestor to individuals who may have had multiple enslaved ancestors?  Would larger payouts go to individuals whose ancestors survived to live the longest number of years of forced labor under the slavery system?

And this question is fundamental: Why should a living descendant’s compensation be tied to the exploitation of a single enslaved ancestor of theirs, instead of being determined by the long-term impact of the slavery regime on their life today?

Moreover, given the global objective of eliminating the black-white wealth disparity, there is no assurance that the unspecified amounts of “back pay for [an ancestor’s] lost wages” will close the gap.  Total expenditures for state governments in fiscal year 2020, for all purposes, will be approximately $2 trillion, which is nowhere near the at least $10 trillion required to close the gap. Notably, unlike the federal government, state governments are not the purveyors of a sovereign currency that would enable them to be unconstrained by an advance collection of tax revenues.

Not only is Maryland’s proposal piecemeal, but the plan also demonstrates the paternalistic tendency to limit the burden of restitution to the heirs of “our own slaves,” rather than recognizing the structural and all-encompassing nature of the system of American slavery and the need to confront its legacy at the national level.

The state of Maryland is one of several entities moving to admit their institutional or personal complicity with American slavery while, also, establishing “reparations” funds to compensate those persons identified as descendants of the direct victims of their individual states’, institutions’, or families’ immoral practices.

Another example is Georgetown University, where ­­students are attempting to provide recompense to the descendants of the 272 enslaved persons who were sold to deep south planters by the Jesuits in order to ensure the survival of the school. The sale itself was an act embedded in the structural conditions of a racialized, slavery-based society and had adverse ramifications—much like all such exchanges—on more black people than the 272, themselves. Each transaction that involved the sale of human beings reinforced the slave order.

Today, there are an estimated 12 to 15,000 descendants of the 272 persons sold by the Jesuits in 1838; there are an estimated 20,000 descendants of all persons enslaved by the Jesuits in Maryland. Georgetown’s leadership now says it will allocate $400,000 per annum as a compensatory measure for the descendants. Even using the lowest estimate of the descendant population, $400,000 only amounts to $33 per person each year.

Today, Georgetown University’s endowment is approximately $1.62 billion, generating “earnings” of about $83 million; $400,000 is less than 0.1 percent of that number. In 1838, the 272 enslaved persons were sold for $115,000. The value of that sum compounded to the present at 5 percent interest amounts to $787 million; $400,000 is less than .01 percent of that number. To achieve the $10 trillion minimum necessary to eradicate the black-white wealth disparity—whether contributions come from individuals, families, or institutions—would require the massive task of assembling 25 million donors with each giving $400,000, the same amount as Georgetown’s annual pledge.

Making the Case for Systemic Reparations

While piecemeal initiatives of the type pursued by the state of Maryland or Georgetown University are admirable in their acknowledgement of the existence of a debt—and though they may salve guilty consciences—these incremental initiatives will not lead to fundamental change in the conditions of structural racial economic inequality. This essential transformative change demands action from the core institution that established and maintained the system of racial injustice, the federal government. The nation must be held accountable, and the federal government must meet the debt. As stated above, state governments, specifically, have neither the obligation nor the capacity to execute an appropriate comprehensive plan for black reparations.

Additionally, the focus on piecemeal “reparations” is customarily limited to the horrors of slavery, and far less attention is devoted to the damages of the Jim Crow regime or the consequences associated with ongoing harms. An exception that proves the rule is the peculiar fixation on using taxes from the sale of legalized marijuana to compensate over-incarcerated black people on minor drug charges. Federal laws concerning drug possession created the window for this form of over-incarceration. This strategy entirely bypasses the compensation merited by over-incarcerated black people for other reasons or not incarcerated at all but subjected to police abuse, and, again, it will do little to eradicate the black-white wealth gap.

So, what should states, municipalities, churches, universities, families, and individuals do who admit their historical complicity with slavery? We contend that they should coalesce to form a consortium that aggressively petitions Congress to enact a comprehensive national program of reparations for all black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. This collective effort will be of much greater value to black American descendants of persons enslaved in the US than a string of individual steps to undertake reparations piece by piece.

Learn more in the soon-to-be released From Here to Equality, as well as in a forthcoming report for the Roosevelt Institute.

[1] We prefer to refer to “conciliation” rather than “reconciliation” because in all cases of grievous injustice there has not been a prior historical moment of relative harmony and goodwill between the perpetrator and the victim.
[2] Indeed, to avoid this weakness, in From Here to Equality, we recommend two criteria for eligibility for payment from a national plan for black reparations. First, an individual must demonstrate that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the US; and, second, an individual must demonstrate that they self-identified as black, African American, or negro at least 12 years before the enactment of a black reparations policy or enactment of a study commission for black reparations, whichever comes first.