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William Darity Jr. and Kirsten Mullen on Why It’s Time to Pay Reparations to Black Americans

  • William Darity Jr. and Kirsten Mullen
  • December 07 2023
  • PC135-2023

Reparations for Black Americans is not a new idea—before the U.S. Civil War had ended, there was a proposal to provide freed Black people with “40 acres and a mule.” That did not materialize, and in the ensuing century and a half, the Black descendants of formerly enslaved people have faced systemic injustices, discrimination, and violence. In this episode, Professor William “Sandy” Darity, Jr. and Kirsten Mullen explain what a meaningful reparations program for Black Americans would entail, how eligibility should be determined, and why the federal government is both the “culpable and capable party.”

Sandy Darity is the Samuel Dubois Cook Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, African and African-American Studies, and Economics at Duke University. He is also an IRP Affiliate. Professor Darity’s research focuses broadly on stratification; economics on inequality by race, class, and ethnicity; and the economics of reparations. Kirsten Mullen is a writer, folklorist, museum consultant, and lecturer whose work focuses on race, art, history, and politics. Together they are the authors of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century,” and are also two of the editors of “The Black Reparations Project, A Handbook for Racial Justice,” which was published in May 2023.

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Siers-Poisson [00:00:05] Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research & Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I’m Judith Siers-Poisson. For this episode, we have the great fortune of speaking with William “Sandy” Darity and Kirsten Mullen about their research and advocacy for reparations for Black Americans who are descendants of enslaved people. We’ll be exploring what true reparations mean and the significance of the racial wealth gap in the United States. We’ll also examine how and at what level of society reparations should be implemented. And we’ll also assess the federal effort to date. Sandy Darity is the Samuel Dubois Cook professor of public policy, African and African-American studies and Economics at Duke University. Professor Darity’s research focuses broadly on stratification, economics on inequality by race, class and ethnicity and the economics of reparations. Kirsten Mullen is a writer, folklorist, museum consultant and lecturer whose work focuses on race, art, history and politics. They’re the authors of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century,” and are also two of the editors of “The Black Reparations Project, A Handbook for Racial Justice,” that was published in May 2023. Sandy and Kirsten, thank you so much for joining us today.

Darity [00:01:26] Thanks for having us.

Mullen [00:01:27] Pleasure to be with you, Judith.

Siers-Poisson [00:01:28] I’d like to start with a very basic definition of what reparations mean in the context of Black Americans.

Mullen [00:01:35] Do you want to start?.

Darity [00:01:35] Sure. In our book From Here to Equality, we actually open the book with a definition of reparations. And our definition is a program of acknowledgment, redress and closure for a grievous injustice. And by acknowledgment, we mean that the culpable party, the party that has committed the atrocities or harms, admits its culpability and proceeds to say that it is going to make restitution. The act of restitution is what we mean by redress, where some steps are taken towards compensation for the atrocities or harms. And then the third component of our definition of reparations is what we refer to as closure, which means that the culpable party and the victimized community come to an agreement that the account is settled, that the debt has been paid. And this means that the victimized community will make no further claims on the culpable party unless there is a renewal of the atrocities or new types of atrocities take place. But otherwise the account is finalized. So that’s our definition of reparations in the context of thinking about reparations for Black Americans, specifically Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States. We think of acknowledgment as an obligation that should be taken by the Congress of the United States. We think of redress as restitution in the form of monetary payments that would be sufficient to eliminate America’s racial wealth gap. And we think about closure as a moment of conciliation between the federal government and its Black American citizens whose ancestors were enslaved here consequent upon the act of restitution.

Siers-Poisson [00:03:35] So specifically, I think it’s important to point out that slavery is what comes to mind first and foremost. But reparations are not just about slavery. It’s about a whole history of oppression and intentional suppression of people who have been racialized as Black. Can you give us a sense of what some of those other moments in history and clear decisions that were made contribute to the need for these reparations?

Mullen [00:04:04] The United States did not have to be a slave republic. You know, that’s the first, the first opportunity to have had a different future for all of us. But we did. And then the Civil War was fought by the Confederates to retain slavery. But thankfully, they lost the war and slavery was outlawed. And then the 13th Amendment also granted additional rights to the formerly enslaved. But this was a moment when the federal government had in the form of Special Field Order Number 15 promised the emancipated 40-acre land grants. This is land that would have stretched a 30-mile wide band from the South Carolina Sea Islands all the way up to the mouth of the St Johns River in Florida, about 341 miles, basically a Black belt, if you will. And this land that was formerly owned by the Confederates, you know, land that had been abandoned by them and confiscated because of their, you know, efforts in secession and because they were traitors to the United States. A small number of African-Americans were settled on those lands. But then Andrew Johnson becomes president. He reverses Special field Order 15 and insist that the land be given back to the former owners right at the same time in the form of the Homestead Act of 1862, White Americans, including recent immigrants from Europe, were given 160-acre land grants. These are lands that were in the Western territories, basically completing the colonial settler project, you know. So these are lands that had just only recently been occupied by indigenous people, Native Americans. That promise was kept and those White Americans were dramatically assisted with wealth accumulation as a consequence of that single, you know, free equity project, basically by the federal government. So to begin with, you’re looking at a policy that was going to grant 40-acre land patents to emancipated and 160-acre land patents to White Americans. And then only the White Americans received that benefit. So for us, the racial wealth gap begins with that failure to provide those land grants to the emancipated. We might not be having this conversation if that policy had been fulfilled and importantly, if the recipients had been protected so that they could have developed the land, prospered, profited, and importantly bequeathed the land itself and any profits from it to their offspring. That is what White Americans have been able to do for now, you know, over, gosh, 140 years. But the Black Americans were not able to do.

Siers-Poisson [00:07:02] Kirsten, you just talked about the racial wealth gap in the United States and how it has really sprung from this. And, Sandy, you have done a lot of work on this issue and put some real numbers to that wealth gap. Can you give us a sense of the magnitude of those disparities?

Darity [00:07:19] So the Federal Reserve has a survey that it administers every three years, and the most recent one that has been released. And we’re awaiting the release of the 2022 survey, but the most recent one that has been released was 2019. And in the 2019 survey, the average Black household had $840,900 less in net worth than the average White household. So, you know, fairly close to a $1 million difference in average net worth that for us sets the foundation for the amount that would be due under a reparations plan, because from our perspective, the racial wealth gap is the best single economic indicator of the cumulative intergenerational effects of white supremacy. And this relates to the previous question that you asked that Kirsten responded to, because it is actually the multiple generation impact of white supremacy that lays the foundation for a reparations plan. It’s not singularly slavery. It’s not singularly the land distribution policy that Kirsten talked about. But it’s the combination of these effects over time policies that the federal government has conducted, as well as the original displacement and horror that was associated with the enslavement of people who were forcibly brought to this part of the world through the transatlantic slave trade.

Siers-Poisson [00:08:57] Well, and you talk in your book about not just—and certainly they are hugely significant—slavery and then the Homestead Act, but also things like housing policy and redlining and also even how the GI Bill was inequitably distributed. So this is not just what might feel like kind of ancient history. This is very much contemporary and still going on in many ways.

Mullen [00:09:23] Yes, well, it’s also the case that the Homestead Act itself is not ancient history. The last Homestead Act was patented in 1980. So, you know, that was a tremendous effort on the part of the federal government to help White Americans increase their wealth position. But you mentioned, you know, what other kinds of policies were in place. So in the 19th century, the plan to assist White Americans was land ownership. But in the 20th century, the focus was on home ownership. And you had with the GI Bill a collaboration between the Federal Housing Administration and banks, financial institutions. You know, on paper, the G.I. Bill was for all veterans. You know, there’s opportunity for them to receive assistance purchasing a home business, a farm, to get education. But the program was administered discriminatorily. In fact, the only way that the legislation was passed was a consequence of Southern legislators insisting that it not disrupt their quality of life. They were very aware that if Black veterans had the opportunity to buy their own homes, to invest in a business, that they wouldn’t work for them for peanuts, that they would not be sharecroppers, that they would not work in their lumber mills, that they would not work in their turpentine fields, that their wives and sisters and daughters would not be domestic workers, you know, working for a pittance, really. And so the concession was that they be allowed to administer the programs locally. So they made the decisions about who was worthy of these benefits. And it wasn’t Black veterans. You know, one case, really extreme case is that of Mississippi. One of our colleagues, Ira Katznelson, who’s written a fabulous book called “When Affirmative Action Was White,” looked at one year in the 1940s when about 3,900 veterans received the benefit for housing. Two of them in the entire state of Mississippi, were Black. So nearly 4,000. And when you look at the north, the numbers are much larger, but the ratios are similar.

Darity [00:11:50] You know, and in terms of the recency of these harms and damages, I think it’s important to point out that for the very first ten years of Kirsten and my own life, we lived under the conditions of legal segregation in the United States. I guess what people blithely refer to as the Jim Crow period, and that was a period that encompassed at least half of the lives of our parents up until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There is at least one legal scholar, the late Boris Becker, who argued that actually legal segregation made more of a case for reparations than slavery itself. And I think he made that argument primarily because there were more individuals who were living who had been exposed to the effects of the Jim Crow period. But even in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we still have the ongoing harms of mass incarceration, vast health disparities between Black and White Americans, police killings of unarmed Blacks, and ongoing discrimination in labor, credit and housing markets.

Mullen [00:13:06] What I wanted to say, though, before we get away completely from the historical moment, we have learned that between Reconstruction and the end of World War II, there were at least 100 massacres of Black people. Many of your listeners may be aware of the Tulsa massacre, which occurred in 1921 because there was a memorialization of that massacre that took place a hundred years later, in 2021. And what many of us learned is that here was a community where Black people managed to acquire some material wealth. There were churches, there were schools, there were several movie theaters. There was a skating rink, you know, many, many businesses that were Black owned. And they drew not just the attention, but the envy of their White neighbors. And, you know, at a certain point, I think the, just the anger that these Black people somehow had managed to do so well just was more than they could stand. And they attacked them and burned the community to the ground, 35 square blocks of Tulsa. You know, when we talk about the culpability of the federal government, among the many strategies that the White rioters used, they use decommissioned military planes and firebombed the community because the buildings, many of them burned from the top. And people are trying to figure out, you know, what had happened. But they also targeted pedestrians on the street. I mean, it was, you know, like living in a war zone. It’s a horrible situation. But we were also aware of a similar massacre that had occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. Although both of our children went to school in North Carolina and this was not part of the curriculum, I think the State of North Carolina had a Wilmington Race Commission in 2000. That sounds about right? And it became much more widely known. But this is a situation where, you know, the White Democrats had been disenfranchised. This is because they had participated in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy and they refused to pledge allegiance, you know, give the oath of allegiance to United States. And as a result, they couldn’t vote. And in areas that had been former plantation areas, the majority population was Black people. And so if they were registered to vote, then their candidates were going to win. And so rather than, you know, engage in compromise or try to, you know, create some kind of coherence with the Republicans, they decided that they wanted things to go back to the way they were before slavery ended. And when insults and threats didn’t work, they resorted to violence and they burned out the Black business district. And Black people fled. And for the next 70 years, no Republicans were elected. The Black population dropped about, what, 40%?

Darity [00:16:33] So Wilmington, it went from being a majority to being a minority of the population in population. Yeah.

Mullen [00:16:40] And about 200 and some White men signed their name to what they called the White Man’s Declaration of Independence. We learned through our research that ten years earlier in Fort Bend County, Texas, which is near Houston’s, where my grandfather’s from, my maternal grandfather. And there had been a similar massacre there with similar results. And they, too, had penned a White Man’s Declaration of Independence. Over 400 of them signed those documents. And the documents are available respectively, in the Texas State Archives and the North Carolina State Archives. They were not afraid of putting their names to these documents. But what we’re learning is that there were playbooks that were being used, like open-source documents that were very effective. We know that the playbook that was used in Wilmington, North Carolina, was used by the White supremacists in Atlanta for the 1906 riot. And I’m sure we’ll discover many other connections. But you begin to see maybe the earliest White riot that we have seen in our research was Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873. But then you have Coushatta in 1874, Vicksburg, at least 100 of these. And the characteristics not only were Black lives snuffed out, but oftentimes once Black families had fled, their property was appropriated by the very people who murdered and massacred the community. So this is another instance of the loss of Black wealth that the federal government just, you know, turned a blind eye and in some instances was complicit.

Darity [00:18:31] Frequently, the observation is made by some opponents of reparations, and I think perhaps most notably is Mitch McConnell, that there’s no one living today who enslaved anybody and there’s no one living today who was subjected to slavery. And therefore, there should be no case for reparations. But the role that slavery plays in the contemporary case for reparations for living Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved here is a consequence of the long-term impact of white supremacy on Black lives. And that impact is linked directly to the beliefs and the practices that were undertaken during the period of enslavement. So we are not talking about harms the living Black Americans that are associated with their direct exposure to slavery. We are talking about the harms that are consequent upon the intergenerational effects of slavery and the policies that the federal government pursued in the aftermath of slavery that had the effect of creating this immense racial wealth gap. I think earlier I mentioned that the Survey of Consumer Finances indicates that the racial wealth gap between the average Black household and the average White household is approximately $840,900. If we were to cumulate that figure across the entire population of Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved here, the per-person measure would be about $350,000. But the overall measure would be somewhere in the vicinity of $14.3 trillion.

Siers-Poisson [00:20:28] Let’s talk more about who would be eligible under this plan. You lay out four pillars of an effective and meaningful reparations program. And the first is eligibility. So how would you propose determining who is eligible for reparations?

Mullen [00:20:46] So for us, there is both a lineage standard and an identity standard that need to be met. So in terms of the lineage standard, we’re talking about individuals who can document that, that they are descended from at least one person who was enslaved in the United States. The second criteria is the identity standard. So for us, these are individuals who self-identify as Black American, Afro American or Negro on some legal document, at least 12 years prior to the creation of a reparations program or the enactment of a study commission for reparations. Both of these criteria are really important and must be met. We were very aware that there are individuals who live as White, who are descended from at least one Black ancestor. But for our purposes, they would not be eligible to receive reparations. Strictly talking about Black American citizens of U.S. slavery.

Darity [00:21:45] The identity standard is based upon self-identification. It’s not based upon the use of DNA testing or some phenotype test in terms of skin shade or the like. And we tried to set up this 12-year standard for self-identification to prevent people from suddenly declaring that they were Black when they saw the opportunity to have a monetary benefit from a reparations plan. Yeah.

Siers-Poisson [00:22:14] I do want to go back to the eligibility point of having at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States. How difficult is that for people to find out or to know at this point?

Mullen [00:22:30] So I think more finding aids are being made available every day online. We know now that all the Freedmen’s Bureau records are online. All of the extant Black newspapers are now available online. Callie House, who was one of the early advocates for reparations for Black American descendants of your slavery, had an organization that sought initially to petition the federal government for pensions for the Black Union soldiers and then transitioned to petitioning for redress for enslaved Black people writ large. And the application process required them to include not only their names or their mark, but where they had been enslaved, who their enslavers were, if they had been serially enslaved to have that information as well. And she recruited at least 300,000 dues paying members. This is at the beginning of the 1900s. And all of those applications are in the Library of Congress. But we would advocate that the federal government create an agency that would be, you know, operated by professional genealogists whose job it would be to assist individuals who were trying to make their claim free of charge. But I’m just astounded every day I receive, you know, emails from libraries letting me know about some new database that’s available. So it’s not an impossible task, we don’t believe. And then also there is the process of inclusion by omission. So say you had a relative who you believe was enslaved, but they don’t appear in the 1860 census, but they were old enough to have appeared in the 1860 census. So you find their names in the 1870 census, say they were one years old in 1860. So the fact that they don’t appear in 1860 but do appear in 1870 suggests that that individual was enslaved.

Darity [00:24:30] I would add that in the edited volume that Kirsten and I worked on with Lucas Hubbard, the Black Reparations Project, Evelyn McDowell has an essay in which she details a number of examples of the ways in which people could obtain genealogical information that would establish that they had at least one enslaved ancestor. And I think her essay also demonstrates that this is something that could be accomplished for virtually anyone who was trying to do that. And indeed, the more instances that become documented, the greater the possibility of improving the documentation for other people who have not yet been reached.

Mullen [00:25:14] Yeah. Yeah. All the interlocking familial connections would be evident if more people would share the information that they’ve gleaned.

Siers-Poisson [00:25:23] So another pillar of the reparations program is who would be responsible for paying them. And Sandy, as you said, that price tag is over $14 trillion based on the most recent information from the Federal Reserve. The two of you state very clearly for several reasons that the federal government is the entity that should be responsible for paying reparations. Can you tell us some of the reasons why they are the responsible party?

Mullen [00:25:51] I mean, we talked a bit about the federal government being the culpable party, that it made slavery legal in the first place. I mean, basically creating an affirmative action program for White people that didn’t have to be. Then we had the Civil War itself when, you know, the South had the option of compensated emancipation. On numerous occasions, Abraham Lincoln met with different groups of Southerners trying to convince them to accept payments of up to $300 for each of their human chattel in exchange for emancipating them. But we, you know, believe the Southerners were convinced that they were going to win the war, and they really just weren’t interested in having that conversation. I mean, literally days before the war ended, Lincoln was still trying to have this conversation and he just couldn’t get any traction. But that would have been a huge thing. The compensated emancipation did occur in the District of Columbia. This was in 1862, but it was not a precedent for the rest of the country, surprisingly, not even in the border states. So that’s another missed opportunity. But then you have the Civil War ending with a program actually was already underway. There were several experimental projects taking place that had placed Black families on 40-acre land grants. South Carolina was one uh, Port…, Port Royale, South Carolina, that was wildly successful. This was the first time that, you know, the contraband had an opportunity to sell their produce, their harvests at a fixed price. So the government was the, you know, the buyer. And I think every single settlement was profitable, wildly profitable. So it’s not as if they didn’t have a proof of concept in hand. But Andrew Johnson comes in and reverses, you know, reverses his whole program and gives the land back to the Confederates without making them sign an oath of allegiance to United States. Then you have coming forward the federal government deciding again to assist Whites with the G.I. Bill. Then you have right behind that the whole redlining process, which again, pairs government agencies with financial institutions and mortgage institutions, basically starving Black people of credit. You know, you could get a house if you wanted to pay an exorbitant amount of money, you know, for the insurance. And usually you had to put forth a much higher down payment on the house, which most people couldn’t afford to do. Then Black people would be pushed into usually one quadrant of the city and that whole area would be redlined. You know, hence the term. So the value of your house, the physical plant is decreased. Then you have the the whole interlacing of the interstate highway system. And in so many cities like our own hometown of Durham, North Carolina, the Black business district is crisscrossed by these highways. Your foot traffic is gone. Usually the businesses themselves are dispersed. I know in Durham, the Black community business elite were promised a quadrant of the city where they could be relocated. It hasn’t happened yet. This is something that happened in the 1960s, and I don’t think Durham is that unusual. But not only that, you’ve got Black people now living under highways. There’s noise pollution, there’s air pollution. People have all kinds of respiratory illnesses and asthma, not to speak of, you know, the difficulty of trying to manage, you know, your own commute, living in these areas and knowing that you can’t sell the house. I mean, who wants to be, who wants to buy that house? So you’re in a really bad situation. And even the folks who were fortunate enough to have had their homes and businesses taken through eminent domain, the Black folks who were in that position, they almost never received what the house was really worth, the amount of relocation allowances that they received did not equal what their White counterparts received. And one of the students was talking about his own research that confirms that for the most part, many of these people never again lived in a house of comparable quality. You know, eminent domain was kind of the end of their middle class. Hmm. Yeah.

Darity [00:30:23] So Kirsten has talked about the federal government as the culpable party, but we’ve also argued that it is the capable party and other levels of government are not capable of meeting the reparations bill. In fact, we have said that this range of initiatives that are being undertaken in a number of municipalities and in a handful of states are intrinsically incomplete, inconsistent, and inequitable. By incomplete, we mean that these policies are practices being undertaken by cities and states that are labeled as reparations intrinsically cannot fulfill the amount that is due. The federal government does have the capacity to meet a bill of $14.3 trillion. I think that’s fully evident as a consequence of what occurred in response to the Great Recession, as well as what occurred in response to the pandemic. The federal government amassed significant amounts of funds for expenditure purposes to deal with each of those crises without having any significant change in the level of taxes that people were incurring. So the federal government can do it, but states and localities cannot. Their total combined budgets at the present moment come to something less than $5 trillion. And the bill that we’ve outlined is at least $14.3 trillion. So that’s the incompleteness dimension. The inconsistency arises because these various state and local initiatives are uncoordinated, and they are not interwoven or integrated with one another. So there’s not a necessary degree of compatibility between them. And then finally, they’re inequitable because they are not uniform. So eligible recipients in different communities are going to receive different types of restitution. If we indeed want to call it that. And in fact, we would argue that these local and state initiatives are something that could have value from the standpoint of reducing the impact of the various harms that have taken place. But they do not have the capacity to essentially provide adequate compensation for the magnitude of the range of harms that have been inflicted on the victimized community. And so we would say it’s okay to undertake some of these initiatives, but just don’t call them reparations because they don’t deserve the label of reparations due to their insufficiency.

Siers-Poisson [00:33:27] Going back to the four pillars of a reparations plan, the final element is the form that payments should take and what they can be used for. What do you propose, Kirsten?

Mullen [00:33:41] We think that the payments should be made directly to the eligible recipients. This is exactly what happened in the case of the victims of the Holocaust. This is what happened for the victims of 9/11. This is what happened in the United States, again, for Japanese-Americans who were unlawfully interned during World War II. No one said we should put the money in a particular fund or that it should go toward education, or it should go toward housing, which is what’s happening in Evanston, Illinois. The individual recipients were given the opportunity to decide for themselves how those funds would be spent. And that’s exactly what we think should happen here. I mean, we think it’s a bit odd that when the potential recipients of an equity project like this, you know, a debt that’s being paid is Black Americans sins of US slavery, that people suggest all these other ways that the debt should be paid. This group has been harmed. There have been volley after volley after volley of atrocities beset on them. And the payment should be paid directly to them, as they have been for other harmed groups.

Siers-Poisson [00:34:50] I’d like to talk about H.R. 40, which is a bill establishing the commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. It was first introduced in 1989, but it’s also gone through many reviews in the decades since. You’ve expressed serious concerns about H.R. 40. Can you share why?

Mullen [00:35:11] The bill, as you said, has been revised many times over the 30 plus years that it’s been in existence and not to the good. The number of commissioners was originally seven. Now there are 15, a very unwieldy 15. A quorum is defined as seven members. So not a majority, not a supermajority, but seven of 15. The commission members now cannot be selected from any group of elected officials. So no mayor, no governor, no member of the House or the Senate may serve. Which is odd, because those are exactly the kinds of people who tend to serve on these commissions. And, you know, the American public is usually happy to see them serve because they are accountable to the American public, but they may not serve on this commission. Interestingly, those individuals in the House and Senate cannot be paid to serve on a commission. The folks who serve on this commission will receive up to executive four level salaries of about $172,000 a year. The length of time that they may deliberate has been expanded. So it seems that the folks who revised this legislation wanted to be sure that the commissioners did receive a salary, which is odd. I mean, we think of this as a sacred mission serving on these commissions. And the idea is not that they are doing the work of the commission. They would have an administrative staff that would be assigned to work with them. They would have oversight, and certainly the administrative staff would be paid. And the commissioners should be paid for their expenses. But our assumption is that they would have a day job. And I’m a little concerned about individuals who would only be willing to serve if they could be paid an extraordinary salary. These are some of the structural problems with the bill. Let me add another structural problem. The director of the commission is not someone who is appointed by an elected official. This is an individual who was appointed by the chair and the vice chair of the commission. But the director has been given the authority to appoint six of the 15. So those six plus one more would give you a quorum. It’s just a little odd. Then on the you know, on the substantial side, H.R. 40 does not include any of the four pillars. It does not indicate who the eligible party is. And for us, these are individuals who are descended from Black American citizens of U.S. slavery, and who self-identified for at least 12 years prior to the creation of a reparations program or study commission, self-identified as Black, African-American, Afro American or Negro on a legal document That’s not part of H.R. 40. H.R. 40 does not indicate that the elimination of the racial wealth gap, this $14.3 trillion gap, this debt is a central part of the bill. H.R. 40 does not say that payments should be made directly to the eligible recipients. Nor does it say that the federal government is the culpable and the capable party. So, you know, one might ask, well, what does H.R. 40 say? It doesn’t say much more than authorizing a study commission. Importantly, they have asked to be exempt from something called the Federal Advisory Committee Act. And this is legislation that was created in the 1970s to make it more likely that entities of this type did operate in the light that they hold public hearings, that their agendas, that their minutes, that their reports are made public, that they hold hearings, that individuals be allowed to give testimony, that those testimonies be placed in a repository where anyone could access them. This commission has asked that the writers of this of this legislation have asked to be exempt from that. And, you know, we just want to know why. You know, we are convinced that many people have not read H.R. 40 and that they really don’t know exactly what it says. Unfortunately, it’s the only legislation we have. You know, there’s a companion bill in the Senate, but it’s almost identical to H.R. 40. And if one comes out opposing H.R. 40, it feels, you know, to many that you are opposing reparations, which is absolutely not the case for us. I mean, we are virulent supporters of reparations, adamant in our support of champion reparations. But H.R. 40 is not going to get us there.

Darity [00:40:01] Representative Cori Bush introduced a resolution earlier this year that has some very positive features, but it ends up having an endorsement of H.R. 40 without any indication that H.R. 40 should be revised or altered or replaced. And so it’s unfortunate that so much attention has been drawn to this single piece of legislation which is so sorely lacking in both substance and structural soundness.

Siers-Poisson [00:40:34] As we wrap up, would you share with us what it might mean for Black Americans, but also for our society as a whole if the racial wealth gap was eliminated?

Mullen [00:40:44] You know, wealth provides a cushion against uncertainty. You’re talking about people having greater access to quality medical care, to legal counsel, the ability to live in a neighborhood with high amenity schools or to send your child to a high amenity grade school or college. Imagine what our world would have looked like had reparations been paid five years before the pandemic. You know, so many people who lost their jobs and many of them were Black people working in service industry, in health industry, food service. It would have been a very different outcome. And not just for Black Americans. You know, we’re talking about an opportunity for Black people to have full citizenship rights. This is something that Black people have never had. And because we live in a society where money matters, having that asset really makes a difference. You can participate in the public life in a different way. You can support political candidates. You can rally. You know, you can make petitions. There are all kinds of ways that you can make your voice heard legitimately, legally, that are afforded when one has wealth. There’s also the possibility that individuals could purchase businesses that were already a going concern. You know, one of the things that really matters with business startups is having the opportunity to fail and to try again, you know, to make changes, to learn from your mistakes. This is, you know, something that’s just not available for the most part for Black people who want to be entrepreneurs. So, you know, having that wealth really would be a game changer. I think in many, many ways.

Darity [00:42:48] You know, I just would like to echo your comment, Kirsten, about the importance of having the material conditions for full citizenship in the United States. That’s what elimination of the racial wealth gap would provide. So it would give Black Americans a degree of economic security and a wider range of opportunities than they have ever experienced before. The social benefit would mean that the country has finally addressed an outstanding debt that has been in place for more than 156 years. So it would then be possible to move on as a community as a whole with that debt paid and with the prospect for having true racial reconciliation in the United States.

Mullen [00:43:44] I would say one thing I think, too, would be part of that conciliation is an acknowledgment of our actual history. You know, I think part of the difficulty with much of this conversation is we don’t know our history. We learned so much while we were researching from here to equality and continue to do so. And it’s not because we weren’t taught history classes, but a lot of this information was just not made available to us. And certainly when we…

Darity [00:44:25] …so we took history classes, we …

Mullen [00:44:27] …we took history classes, made A’s ….

Darity [00:44:27] … but this material was not in those classes ….

Mullen [00:44:30] But this wasn’t part of those classes. And I mean, just thinking about how different my own understanding of history would have been if any of my teachers had placed the 40-acre land grants that the emancipated did not receive alongside the 160-acre Homestead Act. I knew all about the Homestead Act. I remember having exams where I was spilling out information, The Homestead Act, The Morrill Act, Department of Agriculture. But no one talked about that as a decision that the United States had made to advantage one group, White Americans, over Blacks. I’m certain my hand would have gone up to ask a question like, “Wait a minute. What happened there?” But I don’t think my teachers were thinking in that way either. I mean, we all had a different kind of understanding of who we imagined we were, what we thought our government had done on our behalf. And, you know, I do think that one of the pluses will be our having the ability to unite around the knowledge and the understanding of who we really are as a people and what we can do together.

Siers-Poisson [00:45:44] Well, Kirsten, Sandy, thank you so much for spending this time with us and sharing your research and insights. I truly appreciate it.

Mullen [00:45:52] Thank you. Thank you so much for having us.

Darity [00:45:54] So glad to be here.

Siers-Poisson [00:45:56] Thanks so much to William Darity and Kirsten Mullen. They joined us to discuss their work on meaningful reparations for the Black descendants of enslaved people. They’re the authors of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century,” and are also two of the editors of “The Black Reparations Project, A Handbook for Racial Justice.” You can find links to both books and the show note for the episode. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office of any other agency of the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Poi Dog pondering. Thanks for listening.


Economic Support, Financial Security, Incarceration, Inequality & Mobility, Intergenerational Poverty, Justice System, Policing, Racial/Ethnic Inequality, Wealth