The Big Payback

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Legislatures in two more states—Missouri and Nebraska—are contemplating apologies for slavery. Slavery was introduced in what would become Missouri at least as early as 1720 when Philippe Francois Renault brought 500 enslaved Africans to excavate the mines in present-day St. Louis and Jefferson counties. Missouri outlawed the practice with the ratification of its state constitution in 1865. Nebraska's legislators have expressed "profound regret" for their state's role in slavery and "condemn racial discrimination in any form toward African Americans." We believe that these actions are a critical first step toward reparations.


Why institute a program of reparations for events like slavery and legal segregation that happened so long in the past? The reality is: Neither set of events is distant in time.

There are literally scores of living victims of legal segregation in the United States. Our own parents endured Jim Crow into mid-life; a quarter of our own lives were spent in a world of racially segregated and unequal schooling. While the Brown v. Board decision technically ended school segregation in 1954, massive resistance by white Southerners stalled the process for another 20 years.

When the North Carolina Senate joined the legislatures in Alabama, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia, and passed a measure denouncing slavery and legal segregation, State Sen. Bill Purcell observed that his grandfather was a slave-owner, something he "always had trouble dealing with."

Purcell, just two generations removed from slavery times, is part of a growing movement to reverse profound racial injustice.

The resolution that Purcell voted for in North Carolina said: "The General Assembly formally apologizes for the injustice, cruelty and brutality of slavery, cites its historical role in perpetuating slavery and racism, and expresses its profound regret for the practice of involuntary servitude in this State and for the many hardships experienced, past and present, on account of slavery."

Apologies keep coming as states, universities and corporations excavate and admit their role in slavery and Jim Crow. Brown University has released a report detailing its involvement in the slave trade, and the University of Virginia's Board of Trustees has delivered a statement of regret for the university's use of slave labor between 1819 and 1860.


These efforts provide an opportunity for reconciliation. Now that we know, there is a will to make amends for wrongs or injuries done to African Americans, we can work toward achieving reparations.

An effective program of reparations guided by congressional legislation will achieve three objectives: acknowledgement, restitution and closure.

  • Acknowledgement involves an apology for slavery, legal segregation (Jim Crow) and ongoing discrimination in housing, access to credit, employment and the criminal justice system. Essentially, Congress would be admitting that while these institutions were legal, they were immoral and caused extensive damage that continues today. Acknowledgement would lead to a rethinking of our history, a critical step in the healing process.
  • Restitution involves compensation to eliminate racial inequality. This includes options such as direct payments, vouchers for schooling or business start-ups and the formation of trust funds to purchase stock shares for African Americans. It also could include the development and implementation of school curricula examining America's racial history and the creation of community level institutions to promote sustained racial equality.
  • Closure involves mutual reconciliation between the beneficiaries of white supremacy and those harmed by it. Whites and blacks would come to terms over the past, confront the present, and unite to create a new future. Once the reparations program is executed and racial inequality is eliminated, African Americans would make no further claims for more race-specific policies on American government.

The effects of American racism are pernicious. To illustrate, we would like to examine just one area of adversity for African Americans—accumulating and passing wealth to subsequent generations.

Estimates derived from the 2002 Survey of Income and Program Participation indicate that median white household net worth is about $90,000 and median black household net worth is about $6,000. Black profligacy or exceptionally poor black portfolio management cannot explain this staggering disparity. Studies by economists Maury Gittelman (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), Edward N. Wolff (New York University), Ngina Chiteji (Skidmore College) and Darrick Hamilton (The New School) show that at each income level, blacks have a savings rate at least as high as whites and earn a slightly higher rate of return on their portfolios.


The primary source of individual wealth today is either an inheritance or a transfer of resources from living relatives. We don't typically view parental gifts to newborn children, young couples purchasing their first house or sons and daughters enrolled in college or university as transfers of wealth. But that is precisely what they are.

African Americans have not been able to make major transfers in wealth across generations because they have been denied the capacity to accumulate wealth. After the Civil War, the first Freedman's Bureau Act, the Southern Homestead Act and General Sherman's Special Field Orders 15, decreed that each ex-slave family would receive 40 acres of land and a mule.


The failure to implement or sustain these laws cost ex-slaves about 45 million acres of land, an area 35 times the size of Delaware. Nevertheless, blacks in the South managed to accumulate 15 million acres of land by the start of the 20th century.

Under a regime of white terrorism, acts of theft, fraud, lynching and outright seizure reduced those land holdings to one million acres a century later. White riots in Wilmington, N.C. (1898), Atlanta (1906), across Florida throughout the 1910s and 1920s, East St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Tulsa (1921), Columbia, Tenn. (1946) and Detroit (1943), literally razed black property and prosperity to the ground and consolidated black disenfranchisement.


Wealth denied and wealth destroyed is wealth that cannot be given to the next generation.

In 2006, North Carolina issued a major report on the Wilmington white riot. Florida has paid compensation to the descendants of the victims of the 1923 white riot in Rosewood. Congress is now discussing compensation for victims of the Tulsa riot of 1921. These are just a few examples of reparations for blacks that already have been issued or considered.


The present value of 45 million acres of land can be the basis for the initial calculation of restitution on a national scale. The apologies that have been issued are the foundation for a full program of reparations that the nation long has needed. To move from apology to closure requires restitution.

Let us proceed.

William Darity is an arts and sciences professor of public policy studies at Duke University.


Kirsten Mullen is a writer, folklorist and director of the literary consortium of Carolina Circuit Writers.