The subject of granting financial reparations to American descendants of slaves has long provoked discourse between academics and social justice advocates alike. For centuries, enslaved Africans and their descendants were kept on American plantations against their will, brutally harmed and forced to perform labor every day. In 1619, slavery was first introduced in the United States, in the Jamestown colony of present-day Virginia. It was not until January 1, 1863, when the abolition of slavery was announced under the Emancipation Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln (“Slavery in America”). The amount of time slavery existed in America is still longer than the amount of time since its abolishment. The effects of slavery still remain today. In The New York Times’ “ The 1619 Project” examining the history of slavery, author Trymaine Lee acknowledges modern examples of systemic racism. Legal segregation and Jim Crow laws plagued American society for the greater part of the twentieth century. Redlining and housing discrimination against black Americans created a wide economic gap between the average black and white families in America (Lee). While segregation has since been outlawed, many schools are still arguably segregated, with majority-white schools receiving visibly more funding than their African-American-majority counterparts. Academic achievement and police brutality continue to threaten the lives of black Americans.
These systemic, economic ills of racism can be linked to America’s past involvement in the slave trade. A Pew Research study indicates that 63% of Americans today believe that the legacy of slavery continues to impact the position of black people in modern society, while also citing how "more than four-in-ten U.S. adults think the country hasn’t gone far enough in giving black people equal rights with whites...” (Horowitz). The persistent economic gaps between Americans of different racial groups can be reduced through granting of financial reparations. The implementation of financial reparations for American descendants of slaves will reduce historical and systemic racial inequality and can be implemented via the approval of federal legislation that already exists.
Racial inequality has been continuously apparent in society. Since the origin of slavery in early world history, the oppression of black people has perpetuated the wealth and economic success of their white counterparts. As described in “The 1619 Project,” a special report on the history of American slavery by The New York Times Magazine, slavery “provided political power, social standing, and wealth for the church, European nation-states, New World colonies and individuals,” (Elliott Hughes). If the inhumane practice of enslaving people was used to create mass amounts of wealth for white oppressors, reparation payments can be used to account for this unjust creation of wealth. In an essay analyzing the faults of capitalism in America, Matthew Desmond asserts that early economic success in America was due to “our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor,” (2). His statement furthers the notion that the financial well-being of white people has historically existed at the expense of people of color.
The widening of the gap between black and white Americans has not been accidental. In fact, the federal government has played a significant role in the creation of wealth inequality. As Lee writes for the New York Times, “plundering of black wealth was...etched in law and public policy,” (3). He continues to assert this idea by examining specific examples of the federal government’s failures to create economic equality. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s G.I. Bill was one of his “most enduring legacies,” (Lee 4). However, while giving veterans easier access to mortgages, this legislation allowed for the Veterans Administration to adopt “the same racially restrictive policies as the Federal Housing Administration” that granted loans to racist developers (Lee). Trymaine Lee’s article also reminds us that, while Roosevelt’s economic policies provided a foundation for a successful American middle class, domestic and agricultural workers, the majority of whom were black, were ineligible for these “wealth-building programs” such as Social Security (Lee). The impossibility of attaining the same economic privileges as white Americans thus led to a greater economic gap between black and white people. Lee’s article on the racial wealth gap in America also quotes Duke University professor William A. Darity Jr., who argues that because one’s wealth is largely dependent on the financial success of their family’s previous generations, black Americans are at a disadvantage because of recent injustices preventing the accumulation of generational wealth (Lee). As a professor of both African American studies and public policy at a prestigious university, Darity clearly possesses the credentials necessary to offer an insight as to what the underlying causes of the racial wealth gap are. Irina Ivanova of CBS News also provides quantitative data highlighting just how large the gap is, showing white families are worth about $171,000 on average, as opposed to just about ten percent of that figure being the average wealth of a black American family (1).
Proposed federal legislation, titled H.R. 40, would divert federal funds towards the study of reparations. Congressional attention would be diverted towards the subject of reparations for slave descendants, and while the bill would not yet implement these reparations, Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times explains that a congressional commission would be created “to develop proposals to address the lingering effects of slavery and consider a ‘national apology’ for the harm it has caused,” (Stolberg). Such a commission would be made up of thirteen members and would receive $12 million in federal funding, as noted by The Philadelphia Inquirer (Russ).
A reasonable question to be raised regarding the implementation of reparations is who would be eligible. This is a question that could be studied and answered by the congressional commission. Professor William Darity, mentioned in Lee’s article for “The 1619 Project,” is cited in the Huffington Post with an answer. Darity proposes that for one to qualify for reparations, that individual would have to provide identity himself on a formal document as “black, African-American, colored or Negro” and have legitimate proof of an enslaved ancestor (Craven). This article also quotes Darity as stating that $9.12 billion would be owed, while economist Larry Neal estimates $6.4 trillion (Craven). This same article responds to questions regarding just how reparation payments could be made, pointing to statistics showing that “in fiscal year 2014, the U.S. government spent $3.5 trillion...only 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product” (Craven). While a lack of widespread support and an abundance of questions surrounding the achievability of reparations casts doubt on the issue, simple questions regarding the issue can be answered through the congressional approval of a commission to study reparations.
Numerous questions surround the subject of reparations. Political gridlock and economic debate have resulted in no legitimate blueprint for implementation. While the subject is controversial, with many skeptics, there is no debate that the legacy of slavery is detrimental to the current lives of black Americans. At the very least, productive research and discourse on the issue are owed to the people who have suffered economic misfortune as a result of centuries of discrimination. Education of the public and outspoken criticism of political leaders who refuse to act will result in long overdue financial compensation for this country’s most painful legacy.
Craven, Julia. “We Absolutely Could Give Reparations To Black People. Here's How.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 23 Feb. 2016, www.huffpost.com/entry/reparations-black-americans-slavery_n_56c4dfa9e4b08ffac1276bd7.
Desmond, Matthew. “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/slavery-capitalism.html.
Ferris State University. “Slavery in America.” Slavery in America - Timeline - Jim Crow Museum - Ferris State University, www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/timeline/slavery.htm.
Horowitz, Juliana Menasce. “Most Americans Say the Legacy of Slavery Still Affects Black People in the U.S. Today.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 17 June 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/17/most-americans-say-the-legacy-of-slavery-still-affects-black-people-in-the-u-s-today/.
Ivanova, Irina. “If Black Families Were as Rich as White Ones, U.S. Economy Would Be $1.5 Trillion Bigger.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 20 Aug. 2019, www.cbsnews.com/news/racial-wealth-gap-costs-economy-1-5-trillion-dollars-report-finds/.
Lee, Trymaine. “How America's Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/racial-wealth-gap.html.
Russ, Valerie. “What You Need to Know about Reparations after the First Congressional Hearing Convened on the Topic in More than a Decade.” Https://Www.inquirer.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 June 2019, www.inquirer.com/news/what-are-reparations-america-h-r-40-congressional-hearings-democratic-presidential-candidates-20190619.html.
Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “At Historic Hearing, House Panel Explores Reparations.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 June 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/us/politics/slavery-reparations-hearing.html?module=inline.
The Journal of Scholarship at WHS is a peer reviewed journal publishing academic works by emerging scholars at Weymouth Middle and High School.