Reparations and the Wealth Gap

Forty acres and a mule was the promise made to black slaves, even before the Civil War was over. General Sherman of the Union Army drew up the plan, and Congress took a good look. The price-tag in 1865 would have been roughly $400-million; by today, the black stake in land ownership would have grown ten-thousand-fold by compound interest to several trillion dollars. But the promise, you know, was never kept. As Ida B. Wells put it later, emancipation “left us free, but it also left us homeless, penniless, ignorant, nameless, and friendless.” And there was worse to come in the neo-slavery of Jim Crow. The debts for slave labor have never been paid. The black and white wealth gap has never begun to close.

William T. Sherman.

Reparations means payback – in the case of slavery and its aftermath in America, it means payback for irreparable damage, which is to say: it may be practically impossible and morally required. Our history of paying down the debt for slavery is one of promises broken – like the famous offer of 40 acres and a mule to slaves liberated by war; also the short-lived Reconstruction of the South with full citizenship, equality and freedom for black citizens – all of it undone after “seven mystic years,” in W. E. B. Du Bois’s phrase. We have a history also of what looked like good intentions – New Deal benefits in the 1930s, the Federal housing loans that built suburbia after World War 2, but were designed not to include black families. Reparations is a cause that sleeps but never dies. And it is back full force in a comprehensive book from the University of North Carolina, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. We’re honored to welcome the co-authors this hour: William A. Darity Jr, historian trained as an economist; and Kirsten Mullen, co-writer and lecturer on race, art, history, and politics.

Guest List
William A. Darity Jr.
Economist at Duke University.
Kirsten Mullen
Writer and lecturer.
Thomas Craemer
Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.
Reading List
The Case for Reparations
Ta-Nehisi Coates
What Is Owed
Nikole Hannah-Jones

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