Resurrecting the Promise of 40 Acres: The Imperative of Reparations for Black Americans

June 4, 2020

Today’s black-white wealth gap originated with the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres in 1865. The payment of this debt in the 21st century is feasible—and at least 155 years overdue.

In From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen advance a general definition of reparations as a program of acknowledgment, redress, and closure. Acknowledgment constitutes the culpable party’s admission of responsibility for the atrocity; admission should include recognition of the damages inflicted upon the enslaved and their descendents and the advantages gained by the culpable party. Redress constitutes the acts of restitution; the steps taken to “heal the wound.” Closure constitutes an agreement by both the victims and the perpetrators that the account is settled.

In Resurrecting the Promise of 40 Acres: The Imperative of Reparations for Black Americans, Darity and Mullen complement and significantly extend the findings in From Here to Equality, outlining a detailed plan for the execution of reparations including:

  • Defining and outlining the goals of reparations;
  • Arguing that a major objective of achieving redress is dismantling the wealth gap between black and white people in the US. Darity and Mullen estimate that this project will necessitate a $10 to $12 trillion federal expenditure.
  • Demonstrating the limitations and weaknesses of piecemeal attempts at reparations, making the case for systemic reparations, and arguing that the US government—the culpable party—must pay this debt;
  • Examining five precedents for reparations conducted in America and abroad to determine the lessons learned that could inform the design of an American plan for black reparations; and
  • Recommending revisions to HR 40, which was introduced in 1989 to establish a dedicated commission that would work to provide a report to Congress as a prelude to the development and enactment of a formal reparations bill.

In a moment of deep racial inequality and national unrest, American politics and policymaking should center black people, households, and communities. Ultimately, respect for black Americans, as people and as citizens—and acknowledgment, redress, and closure for the history and financial hardship they have endured—requires monetary compensation. Reparations would enable the descendants of the enslaved to receive the inheritance that was properly theirs all along. The payment of this debt is feasible and at least 155 years overdue.