Reparations Emerging as a Viable Option in Fighting the Racial Wealth Gap

By: Aishaah R. Reed

With the 2020 presidential election looming a little more than a year away, many candidates are focusing on the economy. For Democratic candidates, there is a conscious effort to level the economic scales to ensure economic security for all Americans.[1] This has been witnessed in a number of areas including calls for tuition-free higher education, universal childcare, and Medicare for all.[2] But one longstanding debate has started to rear its head yet it again and has the potential to be an explosive game changer. Democratic candidates are beginning to speak about reparations for the descendants of those who were bound by the “peculiar institution”.[3]

Demands for reparations for the descendants of African slaves are nothing new.[4] In fact as early as 1783, a formerly enslaved woman named Belinda Royall successfully petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts demanding an allowance from the estate of her former owner.[5] These calls for reparations for slavery have continued, most visibly from former Representative John Conyers Jr. who in 1989 (and every year of his career after 1989) brought a bill before Congress to create a commission to study the “impact of slavery on the social, political, and economic life of our nation.”[6] This bill never passed.[7]

Recent studies have placed the economic costs of slavery reparations in the United States at 14 trillion dollars.[8] Yes, trillions. This study was influenced by the 89 billion dollars in reparations paid by the Germans to Jewish victims of the Nazis.[9] The 40 acres and a mule promised to recently freed slaves by Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman might have been cheaper deal.[10]

There is little doubt today about the massive wealth gap between Black and white Americans. In 2016, the average white family had a median net worth of $171,000, meanwhile the average Black family was more than six figures behind with a median net worth of around $17,000. Presidential candidate Kamala Harris briefly describes the reasons for the wide disparity in wealth when she states “centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, legal discrimination and segregation, and discrimination that exists today have led to a systemic wealth gap between Black and white Americans that demands attention.”[11] Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, and Marianne Williamson (who has said she would allocate 500 billion dollars towards reparations) have all mentioned race-conscious policies that would serve as aids to help narrow wealth gap disparities.[12] These propositions are approached with caution as reparations advocates emphasize the need for distinguishing between race-conscious legislation, which are policies that benefit all Americans but greatly benefit the Black community with reparations which seek to reconcile and provide redress for past harms. [13]

However, not all candidates see reparations as a viable option. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders does not support reparations and would rather focus his attention on the “crises facing the American People…there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”[14] However, Senator Sanders’ emphasis on check-writing is misplaced, a strong reparations program includes not only monetary compensation but programs and policies directly aimed at improving the economic and social outcomes of Black Americans as well as acknowledgement of past harms coupled with reconciliation.[15] Senator Sanders is not alone, reparations are not popular among the general American public, 68% of Americans do not believe that descendants of African slaves should get reparations.[16] There are clear racial differences as only 35% of Black Americans are opposed to giving reparations.[17]  It is worth noting that in 1952, only 29% of Germans believed that Jewish victims of Nazi Germany were owed any reparations from Germany.[18]

Regardless of the outcome, these conversations indicate that Americans might finally be ready to grapple with its history, especially the institutions of slavery, Jim Crow, and present-day discrimination. Without a doubt, deciding on a reparations program would be a very complicated ordeal that would require time and dedication to establish what reparations would look like and how it would help eliminate the effects of systematic discrimination on the racial wealth gap. But these complicated problems deserve our attention. Stated another way, “ surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of society, bridging it will require the same.”[19]

[1] Benjy Sarlin, Democrats Have Big Plans for Every Age Group. Republicans Call That Socialism., NBC News (Mar. 3, 2019), https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/democrats-have-big-plans-every-age-group-republicans-call-socialism-n977891.

[2] Id.

[3] Jeff Stein, Three 2020 Democrats Say ‘Yes’ to Race-Based Reparations – but Remain Vague on Details, Wash. Post (Feb. 22, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2019/02/22/candidates-say-yes-race-based-reparations-remain-vague-details/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0d602e6fa55c.

[4] See Adjoa A. Aiyetoro & Adrienne D. Davis, Historic and Modern Social Movements For Reparations: The National Coalition Of Blacks for Reparations In America (N’COBRA) And Its Antecedents, 16 Tex. Wesleyan L. Rev. 687, 693 (2010).

[5] Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631.

[6] Clarence Page, Reparations and the Chicago Story Cohen Told About Trump, Chicago Tribune (Mar. 1, 2019), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/page/ct-perspec-page-reparations-harris-warren-cohen-trump-sanders-brown-0303-20190301-story.html.

[7] Id.

[8] Kia Morgan-Smith, Pay Up, America! New Calculation Puts Slavery Reparations at $14 Trillion, theGrio (Dec. 18, 2018), https://thegrio.com/2018/12/18/pay-up-america-new-calculation-puts-slavery-reparations-at-14-trillion.

[9] Id.

[10] Clarence Page, Reparations and the Chicago Story Cohen Told About Trump, Chicago Tribune (Mar. 1, 2019), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/page/ct-perspec-page-reparations-harris-warren-cohen-trump-sanders-brown-0303-20190301-story.html.

[11] Jeff Stein, Three 2020 Democrats Say ‘Yes’ to Race-Based Reparations – but Remain Vague on Details, Wash. Post (Feb. 22, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2019/02/22/candidates-say-yes-race-based-reparations-remain-vague-details/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0d602e6fa55c.

[12] Danielle Kurtzleben, 2020 Democrats Wrestle With a Big Question: What Are Reparations?, MPRNews (Mar. 1, 2019), https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/03/01/npr-2020-democrats-wrestle-with-a-big-question-what-are-reparations.

[13] Id.

[14] Li Zhou, Bernie Sanders Declines to Back Reparations, Vox (Mar. 1, 2019), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/3/1/18246394/bernie-sanders-reparations-slavery-2020-harris-booker-warren.

[15] Clarence Page, Reparations and the Chicago Story Cohen Told About Trump, Chicago Tribune (Mar. 1, 2019), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/page/ct-perspec-page-reparations-harris-warren-cohen-trump-sanders-brown-0303-20190301-story.html; Danielle Kurtzleben, 2020 Democrats Wrestle With a Big Question: What Are Reparations?, MPRNews (Mar. 1, 2019), https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/03/01/npr-2020-democrats-wrestle-with-a-big-question-what-are-reparations.

[16] Reparations for Slavery in the United States?, Marist Poll (May 10, 2016), http://maristpoll.marist.edu/wp-content/misc/usapolls/us160502/Point%20Taken/Reparations/Exclusive%20Point%20Taken_Marist%20Poll_Complete%20Survey%20Findings_May%202016.pdf.

[17] Id.

[18] Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631.

[19] Id.

css.php