Current U.S. politicians are considering paying reparations to black descendants of American slavery at a level they haven’t since the Reconstruction Era. And a Duke professor is at the helm of the discussion.
William A. Darity Jr., Samuel DuBois Cook professor of public policy and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, has been researching reparations for more than 30 years. He was asked to testify about his research for a recent House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on slavery reparations. Although he was unable to attend in person, he submitted written testimony.
This historic hearing comes after a bill, known as H.R. 40, was proposed in the House of Representatives as the "Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” If passed, it would approve $12 million for a commission to develop proposals confronting the consequences of slavery and accordingly deliver recommendations to Congress.
H.R. 40 was first introduced in 1989 by former Congressman John Conyers, who subsequently reintroduced without success every year since until his retirement in 2017. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) reintroduced the bill in January.
Considering how long he and his colleagues have been conducting research on reparations, Darity told The Chronicle that he is “surprised at the attention that reparations is getting at the present moment.”
He noted three key considerations to keep in mind as to why the issue has become so pertinent now—the first of which is police brutality.
“It may have something to do with the extent to which people have been able to see in a quite visible way police violence against black Americans, particularly police execution of unarmed black Americans,” Darity said. “The capacity for people to actually see these things in real time is quite extraordinary. It’s disturbing, but it’s also extraordinary.”
Another factor could be “the powerful structure of social media influencing people’s conversations and ideas,” such as the work of podcast figures like Antonio Moore, Darity explained. It also could be the policies of the Trump administration.
“There’s also been a reaction to the horrendous attitude and outlook of the Trump administration on many fronts and has just led folks to think about—in a much more serious way—much bolder policies than typically that have been under consideration,” he said.
Darity claimed that of all who provided testimony for the House hearing, he was the only one to significantly critique the text of the bill.
“My written testimony is the only one in some significant way that talks about the text of H.R. 40 and how it may be revised,” Darity said. “The text of H.R. 40 needs to have modifications for it to be really, really effective.”
One reason Darity critiques the bill is because he believes black descendants of slaves have claim for restitution starting with the beginning of the American republic, not the colonial period.
“The window that is relevant to the American black claim for reparations is 1776 to the present, not 1619 to the present, as the bill currently reads,” he wrote in the testimony. “Since the eventual claim for legislative redress must be made on the United States government, the beginning date must be associated with the founding of the Republic, not the landing of enslaved persons at Jamestown.”
In addition, he recommended that the commission issue a report within its first 18 months, and that the commission be appointed by Congress.
Those appointed to the commission, he argued, should all have expertise in areas such as the history of slavery and Jim Crow, criminal justice, housing inequities and a “detailed knowledge about the design and administration of prior reparations programs as guidelines for structuring a comprehensive reparations program for native black Americans.”
Another key suggestion Darity makes concerns revising certain sections of the bill for historical accuracy. The bill incorrectly states that 4 million people were enslaved. This figure refers to those who were emancipated when the Civil War ended.
“Many more than 4 million persons were enslaved in the United States between 1619 and 1865,” Darity wrote in the testimony.
Darity asserted that reparations for black Americans must be provided to those whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States. Having black reparations should strive to eliminate the racial wealth gap, design a systematic way to remember why reparations were needed and hold the United States culpable for allowing a system that “sanctioned slavery, legal segregation in the United States, and continues to permit ongoing racist practices.”
'Despair will not have the last word'
If Democrats take back the Senate and keep the House in 2020, Darity predicts there would be “a reasonable possibility” that H.R. 40 gets signed into law.”
“I’m pleasantly surprised and somewhat optimistic about the prospect of H.R. 40 becoming a reality,” Darity said.
The bill has the support of dozens of Democrats in the House and at least 11 Democratic presidential candidates, according to The New York Times. These include Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Booker was the only presidential candidate to testify during the June 19 hearing. He talked about the disparities and injustices he experienced living in a “black and brown community below the poverty line.” He also highlighted the urgency of addressing reparations now.
“We as a nation must address these persistent inequalities or we will never fully achieve the strength and the possibility,” he said. “Hope is the act of conviction that despair will not have the last word."
However, one person whose support is critical for the bill’s passage remains vehemently against it—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell told the press last month that he didn’t think “reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.”
An NBC News report revealed that two of McConnell’s great-great-grandfathers owned 14 slaves combined. When asked July 9 about whether that changes his stance on reparations, McConnell told reporters that it had not.
"You know, I find myself once again in the same position as President Obama,” he said. “We both oppose reparations, and we both are the descendants of slaveholders."
McConnell, who was alive during the Jim Crow Era, claimed that America has already tried to deal with their "original sin of slavery" through the Civil War, passing civil rights legislation and electing the first black president.
Darity opposed this idea in his testimony, emphasizing that the program would not be merely reparations for slavery, but reparations that “encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment—both slavery and post-slavery, both Jim Crow and post-Jim Crow.”
Racism against black Americans can manifest itself in various forms, Darity explained to The Chronicle, such as police shootings of unarmed black Americans, mass incarceration and—the most important him as an economist—the racial wealth gap in the United States.
The average black household’s net worth is $800,000 less than the average white household, Darity noted.
“That’s staggering. It’s unconscionable,” he said. “But I think it’s the consequence of an accumulation of effects, a host of injustices that find their origins of slavery.”
The last time there was a significant discussion about making restitution to former enslaved people, Darity said, was approximately 150 years ago when former slaves were promised 40 acres of land after the Civil War.
That promise never came to fruition.
“There is a basis of restitution that’s anchored in the failure to provide 40 acres, and I would also say that failure perhaps is one of the key factors why we have the enormous racial wealth gap that we have today,” Darity said.
Editor's Note: This article originally said the U.S. government was considering reparations for black Americans, but it has been most recently updated to clarify that reparations are being considered for black descendants of American slavery.
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Stefanie Pousoulides is The Chronicle's Investigations Editor. A senior from Akron, Ohio, Stefanie is double majoring in political science and international comparative studies and serves as a Senior Editor of The Muse Magazine, Duke's feminist magazine. She is also a former co-Editor-in-Chief of The Muse Magazine and a former reporting intern at PolitiFact in Washington, D.C.
Mona Tong is a Trinity senior and director of diversity, equity and inclusion analytics for The Chronicle's 117th volume. She was previously news editor for Volume 116.