40 Acres and a mule. In 1865, a man could support himself, raise a family and be independent with 40 acres and a mule. It was thought to be just compensation for the harm done to slaves in the United States but this restitution never happened.
More than 150 years after the Civil War, African Americans have not (as a group) overcome the inequity and inequality of racism. Yet the concept of reparations and restitution never died and it remains an unresolved and difficult issue.
On April 17 in a quiet corner of the IE, I was treated to a presentation of the current thinking about black reparations and race relations by two of the nation’s leading experts.
Once again, I had found a hidden gem in the IE. This time it took the shape of a classroom on a community college campus where Hector Solarzano, a student editor, and Keith Montgomery, an acquaintance from work, organized a tele-conference featuring two national experts who explained racism and economic inequality, in a panel discussion of Black Reparations. We learned why black reparations is a moral imperative and why it is so difficult to achieve.
The discussion was nuanced but lively and breathtaking in its scope, as if the audience were taken on a tour of history, politics and economics all in an hour and a half (it went over time a wee bit.)
Dr. William Darity, an expert on race relations and economic inequality from Duke University, threw down the gauntlet. Black reparations or restitution has been a continuing issue in American politics because economic inequality has continued to plague African Americans throughout the history of the United States.
The racial wealth gap between black and white households today stands at $800,000.
If not a consequence of slavery, how can this be explained? Dr. Jared A. Ball of Morgan State University points to the common explanations: that is, if black people changed their behavior, had more two parent families, valued education more, then the wealth gap would disappear. These notions are not borne out by the facts: black single parent households have one half the wealth of white single parent families. Black households with college educations have two thirds the wealth of their white counterparts. In other words, there is an economic gap that black households have (on average) been unable to close with either behavioral changes or education.
Ball simply called these myths about the African American experience: “If black folks had more two parent families, if they valued education more, if they bought more from other black businesses, the wealth gap would disappear.”
What these notions ignore is the fact that wealth is generated not by careful consumption but by investment, which is usually leveraged.
And according to Ball, “As a black man, I could get a $30,000 loan but only to buy a car. I could not get that $30,000 to invest in stock investments, to buy land, or to buy stock options.”
Earlier, Darity had addressed the elephant in the room: the cost. In today’s economy, 40 acres and a mule would be quaint but woefully inadequate as compensation but its monetary value today? With inflation and with 6% interest, total cost would be $2 ½ trillion. Or $70,000 to $80,000 per eligible black American.
Bringing up the question, how practical would it be to provide restitution to black families not just for the effects of slavery but for the decades of racism that is its consequence. Here the two experts parted ways, Darity with an optimistic view and Ball with greater pessimism.
Darity is pleased that in today’s run up to the presidential primaries, most Democratic candidates (and there are many) have either supported the notion of reparations or the formation of a commission to examine the problem and lay out a way forward. Since l989, HR 40, named for those 40 acres and a mule, has been introduced yearly in the House, most recently by Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee. The commission could study past injustices perpetrated against black Americans and set the historical record straight. It was just such a commission that preceded the awarding of reparations to Japanese American citizens held in internment camps during World War II.
“I may be overly optimistic,” he said, “but I think there is a way through and a way of getting wider support.”
The greatest challenge is to find a way for those not receiving economic benefits from reparations to believe they will also benefit from this program. They need to believe first, they will not be harmed by it (through increased taxes, for example, or by economic effects such as inflation.) So a program would have to be designed to NOT harm anyone NOT a recipient.
Ball is pessimistic. He thinks a program of restitution would be considered harmful to those not receiving reparations. No one will vote for restitution only for black Americans unless other issues of inequality, homelessness and joblessness across the board are examined. And solving those problems would take a revolutionary restructuring of the economy that the country is unprepared to even consider.
It is a point both experts made. Whatever the solution, they could not or would not say what it would look like.
Darity ended by speculating on future political discussion of “an economic bill of rights for all Americans.” The question of reparations would be swept into such a program if it included a federal job guarantee, trust fund created for all newborns, and public and postal banking. Darity emphasized, he does not seek a guaranteed income, but a job guarantee that would pay the equivalent civil service salary.
As the hour drew to a close, moderator Keith Montgomery noted that in his profession as a nurse practitioner with some 1500 patients, he daily sees the impact of income inequality and racism on his patients. He and Hector Solarzano, currently the online-editor of the Chaffey Breeze, organized the tele-conference to share the most up-to-date thinking for our edification.
One of the difficulties in discussing black reparations is that slavery was so long ago. We’ve gone past that point in history, the last of the slaves are long dead and most likely, all their children. But the case for reparations today lies in the reasons behind the huge wealth gap between white and African American families. It is a gap that was created with indentured servitude, the Jim Crow era, segregation and red-lining in the l9th and 20th centuries.
The case has been laid out by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a 2014 article cited by Darity and Ball. Coates laid out the manner in which black families have been stripped of their wealth because they lacked legal protections against predatory economic practices. For example, many black families could not get federally backed home mortgages in the 20th century because of the racist practice of red-lining. Instead, those who could afford to buy homes, were forced to turn to contract sellers, who kept the title to the property (unlike with an FHA mortgage where the homeowner kept the title.) These families lacked the consumer protections against outright fraud and manipulation, so many either lost their homes and the investment they had made or paid an exorbitant amount. Coates lays out the case with gripping individual stories in the broad sweep of American history. It is a compelling and persuasive read.
We no longer farm with simple tools but we have not as a nation discussed the history of racism as it has developed over the centuries. As for reparations for African Americans whose forebears endured slavery, it seems we have not moved beyond the notion of 40 acres and a mule.