With the nation’s renewed focus on whether or how to compensate black Americans for the evils of generations of chattel slavery in the U.S. and its systemically racist aftermath, some have questioned who should qualify for reparations should such reparative justice come to pass.
William “Sandy” Darity, a Duke University economics professor and longtime proponent of reparations, tells the Washington Post the answer is simple: Reparations should only go to black Americans directly descended from Africans enslaved on U.S. soil.
So, basically, Michelle Obama, who can trace her lineage to people forced to toil for free in these United States, yes. Barack Obama, whose African father immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1950s, no.
As Darity explains, per the Post:
In defending his rationale for limited eligibility for reparations, Darity notes that the majority of black immigrants came after the civil rights period in the 1960s. While it is clear that more recently arrived black Americans have faced discrimination — and in many cases have ancestors who were enslaved — Darity said he finds it hard to argue that those who immigrated voluntarily deserve the same reparations as the descendants of those brought to the United States in chains.
“If you told me that the only way that I could have a reparations program is that if I gave it to more people, then I’d say okay,” Darity said with a laugh. “But I’m trying to think about how we craft a case that is specific to the United States government as the perpetrator, and I think it becomes very difficult to argue that the United States government should pay reparations to people who have chosen to come here.”
That said, Darity, along with a dozen academics and activists, are getting ready to begin work on the “Planning Committee for Reparations,” with the goal of creating a report that explains, as the Post reports, “not only a rationale for why descendants of slaves should be paid reparations but also suggestions for how to implement such a program.”
However, critics of Darity’s stance on limiting who should be eligible for reparations—including many who support reparations overall—say it encourages xenophobia as well as reductive infighting among black Americans and blacks who came to the U.S. from the Caribbean and Africa who have also experienced systemic racism on these shores.
Some also point, the Post reports, to Darity’s support of American Descendants of Slaves, or ADOS, a recent faction of black American reparations supporters, criticized for what many see as their nativist stance toward black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa.
In any case, as longtime reparations supporter Nkechi Taifa of Washington, D.C., told the Post, parsing out slave lineage among black Americans would prove “difficult”:
“It’s extremely difficult to separate classes of black people. The idea that unless you can actually trace your family directly to a slave that you haven’t been subject to the legacy of slavery is a bunch of hogwash.”
That said, Taifa, like many reparations advocates, is pleased that the matter is a topic of national conversation.
On Juneteenth this year, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held hearings on calls for a commission to “study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans.”
The hearings featured such luminaries as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2014 treatise on the subject, “The Case for Reparations” for The Atlantic, brought the subject to the fore for a new generation of Americans.
The topic is also a talking point for next year’s presidential election, with a number of Democratic hopefuls—and some Republican naysayers—weighing in on the subject.
When thinking about reparations, Darity says it’s about the present as much as it is about the past. As Darity told a writer for The Outline:
“I think there is a tendency to think more about the horrors of slavery without thinking about the horrors that we’ve experienced since slavery ended. It’s not just because they [black people] had ancestors who were slaves. It’s because of that ancestry coupled with an array of atrocities that followed the end of slavery. And those atrocities are still going on.”