Reparations Daily (ish) Vol. 31
The Devil is in the Details: A Conversation with Dr. William 'Sandy' Darity
Happy Monday! I’m sorry to have missed two editions last week. I, unfortunately, tested positive for Covid-19 last Wednesday. My symptoms have included feeling very lethargic, backaches, fever, and congestion. I’m fully vaccinated but I think that I picked it up from one of the bars I went to last Saturday. It’s an unfortunate reminder that this pandemic is not behind us, and in fact, is getting back to the depressing levels that we went through in winter.
I’ve been reading a lot about Covid, breakthrough cases, and the Delta variant. There’s been a couple of pieces that have really stood out to me, and that I recommend you give a read:
This Mississippi Free Press article covers how the University of Mississippi Medical Center is clearing out space on the bottom floor of a parking garage to prepare for constructing a field hospital to handle the burden of an overwhelming influx of new COVID-19 patients.
This New York Times piece covers an eyewear store in the Bronx where one of the employees said she did not want to get vaccinated in fear of turning into one of the zombies from the 2007 Will Smith film; I Am Legend.
This piece in The Atlantic on how the delta variant has changed the outlook of the pandemic.
As reported by CNN, Facebook is the latest large company to push its return to office date back to January 2022. So your office probably should too.
This New York Times piece on the Supreme Court ruling allowing Indiana University to require students to be vaccinated against the coronavirus after eight students sued the university for the requirement.
This sad story out of Florida, where the first child under the age of 5 passed away from COVID-19 complications.
Today’s Hot Takes section features a Q&A with perhaps the most prominent expert on the issue of reparations, Dr. William Darity.
Alongside his co-author Kirsten Mullen, Dr. Darity published From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century last year, just as the country was headed into lockdown due to Covid-19. It is the most recent detailed roadmap for how the U.S. should implement a reparations program for Black Americans. I urge you all to read it.
Like the book, our conversation got deep into the weeds on the topic of reparations. Dr. Darity’s wisdom and logic on this topic shine through in the interview — he has thought, researched, and talked about this topic for a long time. Though this is not purely a topic of intellectual curiosity for him. He is both an academic and an advocate, and he will likely play a major role in what will hopefully come from a federal reparations project.
With radical love,
New York Times: The New New Deal and Old Pitfalls
Christian Post: One verse to eliminate reparations as a biblically just option'
Center for Law and Social Policy: Why Reparations in a New Deal for Youth
Washington Blade: The LGBTQ generational wealth gap
Washington Post: Reparations can’t wait for Congress. Try the local option
STL Today: Making the case locally for reparations
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Trevor: Can you start by telling us about your career trajectory? How you got to Duke, and was there a moment in your career, when you said to yourself, "I want to focus on reparations?"
Dr. Darity: Let me take the back half first because I do know when I decided when I would focus on reparations. It was about 30 years ago, closer to 32 now. Richard America approached me to write an intro to a volume of essays that he was editing, called The Wealth of Races. It was a collection of articles attempting to estimate the magnitude of a reparations plan.
My first reaction was, 'this is crazy.' At the time, I thought reparations were a good idea, as a matter of principle, but something that would never happen. Furthermore, I thought it would never receive enough support in this country for it to occur, so why should we bother pursuing reparations?
If I wanted to say that in the introduction, Richard told me I was free to do so. He was placing no constraints on the introductory remarks, but he was insistent that he wanted me to write the introduction.
So I agreed, and I started reading the papers, and the more I read, the more I became convinced that even though it might be an impossible fight, this was the only real way to address the type of inequalities that beset black America. So, at that point, I made the personal commitment to become a scholar and advocate of and for reparations. So, Richard America's prompt was the turning point to me -- I sometimes say it was my road to Damascus moment.
Ever since then, I've been very committed to the pursuit of reparations for black Americans. The first major paper I published on the subject was a paper I co-authored with Dania Frank Francis that appeared in the American Economic Association’s Papers and Proceedings in 2003. Then my partner, Kirsten Mullen, and I did a piece for The Root; I wrote another paper for Social Science Quarterly called 40 Acres and a Mule in the 21st century. Then, of course, the most recent major project has been the publication of the book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, which has spawned several additional papers and op-eds, and the like.
As far as my career trajectory, from the outset as a new graduate student, I was always somewhat of a skeptic and orthodox economics and have tended to take maverick positions. But, unlike some of my other Black peers, I have tended to take maverick positions that lean to the left. Sometimes substantially to the left, but not to the degree that I believe you can solve America's racial problems if you solve its class problems.
That's where I think I depart from a large number of people who are on the left -- I think I've always been concerned about the phenomena of economic inequality and poverty from early childhood, and that's what propelled me into doing economics. I expected that economics was the field where you could learn the most about what to do about inequality and what to do about poverty. But, unfortunately, I didn't like the answers that economics was giving -- and with the hubris of youth, I said, "I'm going to become an economist and change the way they think about all of this.” Of course, that hasn't been the case, but it's been somewhat gratifying to see some of the policy ideas, that I have been championing take hold. The most recent example is the state of Connecticut, where they have adopted a version of what I call the baby bonds plan.
Trevor: For folks who don't know, who is Richard America?
Dr. Darity: He is an economist originally from Philadelphia. I'm not sure how far into his 80's he is now, but I think he's in his 80's. He was a faculty member at Georgetown University. He was one of the founding members of the National Economic Association, which is the association for black economists. Through that association, I first met him and heard him give presentations, and he heard me give presentations, and there is something that I must have said that prompted him to ask me to write the introduction to The Wealth of Races.
Trevor: You're known as one of the notable academics to popularize the stratification economic field. What are the tenets of it? How would you explain it to a middle schooler?
Dr. Darity: Not to be excessively arrogant about this, but I think I am the person who launched stratification economics as a field. I published a paper in 2005 in the aftermath of a keynote address that I gave to the Academy of Economics and Finance. This is where I dubbed an approach to economic inequality based on social structure and individuals having a focus on relative position not only vis-à-vis their relevant peer group and the relative position of the social group with which they identify as an alternative foundation for doing economic analysis. It’s the 2005 paper where I first dubbed this stratification economics. That was the beginning of the field about a decade and a half ago.
I would say to a middle schooler -- there are two major ways people explain sharp differences in the well-being of social groups. One way is to say that the groups that are not doing well are in some way responsible for their condition because of their own behavior or choices.
The other way to think about it is that there are structural conditions that a group in the bottom position faces that limit its members' lives. Stratification economics explicitly connects to the second point of view -- stating that we have to look at historical processes, past policies, and current policies to understand why we have gaps in outcomes across various social groups (racial, ethnic, gender, etc.) All of this can be explained from a stratification economics standpoint based upon what has been done to those communities rather than what they've done to themselves.
Trevor: I saw somewhere that you and Kirsten started From Here to Equality over a decade before publication. Can you talk about the political climate around reparations from when you started the book to now? And, what is the most significant difference within that time, and what do you expect to see a change in the next ten years? So three questions there.
Dr: Darity: There has been a cycle of momentary bursts of interest in reparations. I would say that the largest degree of attention took place in the Reconstruction Era when there was an active move to provide 40 acres of land to the formerly enslaved as restitution for their years of bondage. This was a policy that was eliminated fairly quickly by Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson. Johnson was instrumental in reversing the entire thrust of the Reconstruction effort to bring black Americans into full citizenship in the United States.
Since then, there have been intervening moments where significant attention has been given to reparations. Still, that attention has largely been confined to the black community itself or colleges and universities. For example, in the latter part of the 19th century, the activist Callie House led a major movement to obtain pensions for the formerly enslaved. She managed to get a petition together that had about 300,000 signatures from those who had been subjected slavery. Her efforts were fairly remarkable, but national officials weren't happy with what she was doing. So they brought her down on mail fraud charges, the same type of charges they used to bring down Marcus Garvey after her.
In the 20th century, I think a significant amount of attention occasionally has been drawn to reparations, particularly on college campuses. Some of this was triggered by the insertion of an advertisement in several college newspapers by David Horowitz, where he outlined ten things that indicated why reparations were a bad idea and a wrong thing to do. Paradoxically, the advertisement triggered a response that generated a substantial amount of conversation around reparations. The argument has been made that what ended that period of attention was 9/11, where the nation's focus shifted to what to do about terrorism, and the reparations conversation shuts down. It doesn't take on renewed significance until 2014 when Ta-Nehisi Coates put out his article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.”
We first had contact with UNC Press to do this book around 2010 or 2011, so it fell squarely into a period where there was silence around reparations. So we were hoping when we signed the contract that when the book came out, we might be able to rejuvenate the conversation around reparations -- and didn't anticipate that there might be some burst in conversation that would take place as a consequence of Coates' article. But, unfortunately, even after Coates' article was published and stirred a degree of conversation, I think things went relatively silent until 2019, which was the first year of the intense portion of the Presidential campaign, where you finally had three democratic candidates endorse reparations.
One of them, the first to do so, Marianne Williamson, put a monetary figure on the reparations bill. I think her maximum figure was $500 billion. The other two candidates who endorsed reparations, Julian Castro and Tom Steyer, didn't offer specifics. But, this 2019 year, where you had political conversations on reparations, including a moment on stage, Marianne Williamson put forward the idea, and Kamala Harris immediately diverted the conversation to school desegregation, we were in a unique moment, I think. With 2019 followed by the events of 2020, including the pandemic and the widespread recognition of anti-black police violence, a recognition that had not been widely shared beforehand in the United States, the reparations conversation accelerated.
Our book came out on a wave of interest in reparations, which was completely unexpected from our standpoint. So we are glad but surprised.
Trevor: Let's stick on politics for a bit. So we saw the whitelash, as some have called it, after the election of President Obama with the election of President Trump. After Black Americans get reparations, do you think there will be a similar whitelash?
Dr. Darity: There will be a backlash from a segment of the white community. In the work that Kirsten and I have done, we have always said that this has to be a project that is a consequence of Congressional action. For that to happen, a good majority of the population, including the white population, has to be in favor of it. The whitelash will come from the 30 percent of the population resistant to any social change that can be viewed as beneficial to black Americans. It is the segment of the population that would like to see the restoration of the Confederacy. It's those who participated in the invasion of the Capitol on Jan 6th. So yes, there will be resistance from that group because that group will resist anything that appears to place black communities on an equal footing. Consequently, there will be a need to be prepared that they are likely to engage in violent resistance, just as the invasion of the Capitol should have been anticipated, given all of the information that was out there beforehand.
Trevor: What would the state of race relations be from your perspective once reparations are given to black Americans?
At that stage, as a nation, we can move into a world where we have substantially altered the degree of - economic security, opportunity, and the horizons for the future for black Americans.- We finally will have put black Americans in a position where they have access to the material conditions for full citizenship. To the extent that a majority of all Americans are in favor of reparations, then we are finally at a point where it becomes possible to achieve the third component of what we think of as a reparations project. The first component is acknowledgment; the second is redress, the third is closure. Closure is a point where black Americans make no further claims on the nation unless there is a renewal of the atrocities of a wave of new atrocities. Otherwise, the account will be settled. By giving black Americans the conditions for full citizenship, as a nation, we finally will have a democracy.
Trevor: So, from my perspective, some people think that reparations are a solution for racism. Do you think that's true? Do you see a world in which racism exists once reparations are given to Black people?
Dr. Darity: First of all, reparations are compensation for the effects of racism; reparations are not expected nor intended to eliminate racism. As I said, there will always be a core 30 percent of the population -- or at least it looks like there will always be that will be opposed to anything like reparations and virtually anything that will benefit black Americans. I don't expect those folks to disappear, and I don't expect reparations to cause them to alter their point of view or behavior. Still, I will say, for reparations to happen through congressional action, there will need to be a prior reduction in the extent of racist attitudes that are held.
Trevor: Is it a possibility to live in a "post-racial society?'
Dr. Darity: So I'm not sure if post-racialism means living in a non-racist society. That's the first thing -- it depends on what people mean by post-racialism. A ton of folks said that when Obama won the election, we were in a post-racial society. Certainly, Obama's election was not associated with an elimination of racism; in fact, many people who are racist probably voted for Obama.
What I can say is, even if racial attitudes are not changed for an important segment of the population, if black Americans are given reparations payments, and those payments are protected, their political capabilities will be altered in such a way it could have a significant effect on the evolution of future racist practices in the U.S. Hopefully, it will be a political impact that will reduce those types of practices.
Furthermore, there's another component of the reparations plan that we offer in From Here to Equality, in addition to direct payments to individual eligible recipients of an amount that will probably be at least $300,000 per person. In addition, we say there has to be an educational component to the reparations project that will last upwards of three generations. The nation’s history must be taught accurately in such a way that it does not continue to be a vehicle for Lost Cause ideology and promotion of the heritage of the Confederacy. This would mean we have to reconfigure the way we teach young people and adults about the period of slavery, the Civil War itself, the period of Reconstruction, and the long period between the end of Civil War and the passage of Civil Rights legislation because a lot of texts jump from slavery to Martin Luther King. That is not an accurate portrayal of the black American experience or the American experience writ large. So, it will be very important to include an instructional dimension in a reparations plan. We are explicit in saying that it should be an instructional dimension that engages in de-Confederatization, which the U.S. has never done. Unlike Germany, where some significant steps were taken toward de-Nazification, there never has been a de-Confederatization effort in the U.S.. However, many radical Republicans, especially Thaddeus Stevens, had such a policy in mind, though it has never happened. So, as part of a reparations plan, there must be a significant component that undertakes the process of de-Confederatization.
Trevor: So I know you are working on a project called the Reparations Planning Commission (RPC). Can you tell us a little bit about this project, why you formed it, what's its purpose, and what it has done over the past two years, and what are its intended outcomes?
Dr. Darity: It's funny you mention this because I'm writing the introduction right now. I'll read a bit from it. It starts by saying that not everyone means the same thing when referring to reparations: “Not everyone shares identical views about who should be eligible, how large the reparations fund should be, how reparations fund should be distributed, nor who should pay the reparations. Moreover, this is truly a situation where the devil is in the details. While many Americans can agree in principle to the moral case of reparations, there are deep cleavages among reparations proponents over the form and structure of an actual program of restitution. Many of us engage in research around black reparations over the years; we're well aware there are sharp differences in visions held by the characteristics of an act of redress.
In 2019, two of the editors anticipated the publication of their book in the following year, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st century, wherein the final chapter, they would offer a detailed plan for Black reparations. They also were aware that others laboring in the reparations research vintages were trying to think through similar issues. It was highly unlikely that the last chapter, From Here to Equality, would be the last word. Coupled with growing national interest in reparations, it was apparent that there would be tremendous value in bringing members of the reparations research committee together to define further and motivate the case and the plan for reparations. Thus, the RPC assembled to produce a volume that functions as an extensive guide for implementing a national reparations initiative. All of the essays in this collection have been written to push forth the Black reparations project.” And here's the key sentence: “These essays are working papers for African-American reparations, and hence working papers for a new America.”
Trevor: When the RPC was originally formed, I remember you telling me that this project would serve as the foundation for H.R. 40. Since then, from what I've seen publicly, it seems as if you've changed your views around H.R. 40 and no longer support it?
Dr. Darity: Well, H.R. 40 has been changed. The version that came out of mark up from the judiciary subcommittee in April 2021 is different from the version introduced in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, so it's been changed more than once. Here's one illustration: the original version of the bill had seven members, 3 to be appointed by the President, 3 to be appointed by the Speaker of the House, and one to be appointed by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. I don't fully understand why those are the appropriate folks to be appointed, but that was the case in the original version of the legislation. In a subsequent version of the bill put out in 2016-2017, there were 13 members, an additional six that were supposed to represent legacy organizations involved in the reparations struggle. Since we know that the National African-American Reparations Commission rewrote the bill–they actually tell us that they rewrote it--it's relatively clear that these six additional positions would be under their control. In the most recent version, it's now up to 15 members. There will be nine of them, three each appointed by the President, the Speaker of the House, and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. The remaining six will be appointed by the Director of the Commission, who in turn would be appointed by the commission itself, and god only knows what that's going to mean. So my skepticism about H.R. 40 is partly a consequence of how the bill has been rewritten.
Trevor: What is your ideal path forward regarding H.R. 40, and what is the ideal form of the commission?
Dr. Darity: I think 7 or 9 is sufficient, which would be similar to the commission that prepared the report for Japanese-American reparations. I see no reason to have 13 or 15 members.
Trevor: Can you outline the criteria for who you think should receive reparations in the United States?
Dr. Darity: It should be individuals who meet two standards. The first is a lineage standard, which means they would have to demonstrate that they had at least one ancestor enslaved in the United States. The second would be an identity standard, which would mean at least 12 years before the enactment of a reparations plan, or the enactment of a commission to study reparations; they would have had to self-identify as Black, Negro, African-American, or Afro-American.
Trevor: Sometimes, these conversations around identity and who qualifies for reparations veer into xenophobia toward other Black immigrants. How do we address this within the movement?
Dr. Darity: I think it's important to distinguish between claiming reparations specific to black Americans who are descendants of U.S. slavery and being xenophobic or being more hostile toward more recent immigrants to the United States. Those two positions are not the same, and they don't have to be the same -- unfortunately, some people have fused them, and this has been a problem within the movement.
Trevor: Would someone who came from, let's say, west Africa in the early 1960s before the civil rights legislation qualifies for reparations?
Dr. Darity: There were hardly any black folk in the United States who had come before the passage of the Civil Rights legislation. Significant immigration did not even occur immediately after the passage of the civil rights legislation. I think the largest wave of immigration takes place during the years of the Reagan presidency. So if you're talking about people who came before the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, it's a very, very small group. I think the estimate that I've seen from a paper published in the Smithsonian is that less than 1 percent of the black population were immigrants before the 1970s. They were primarily individuals who had migrated here from the Caribbean and lived in either New York City or Miami. I also must add that if those individuals inter-married with black people who had ancestry with enslaved persons in the United States, their children and grandchildren would be fully eligible for reparations under our criteria.
Trevor: Since you bring up grandkids, to clarify, in your plan, would reparations go to individuals who are over the age of 18?
Dr. Darity: No, it would go everyone, but it would be held in a trust for those under the age of 18 until they reached adult age.
Trevor: Let's say reparations are passed on Jan 15, 2022, and if I were to have a kid a couple of months later, would that child be eligible?
Dr. Darity: We'd have to set a cut-off date for the birth of new children because we don't want to be in a position where folks are saying that people are having more children so that they can get reparations. But all 40 million currently living black Americans who are the descendants of enslaved people would be eligible for reparations.
Trevor: I referenced a paper in one of my last volumes by Matt Bruenig where he said that the racial wealth gap was concentrated among wealthy Black and white people, and I know you had some thoughts about that.
Dr. Darity: It's problematic because it's one of these attempts to say that racial and economic inequality can be solved if we address social class inequality. This is not the case. It is certainly true that the degree of inequality of wealth within the black community is similar to the degree of inequality of wealth in the white community. However, the maldistribution in the black community operates over a much, much smaller proportion of wealth. For example, black Americans whose descendants were enslaved in the U.S. are about 12 percent of the population but possess less than 2 percent of the nation's wealth. In contrast, the white community, where about 70-75 percent of the nation's population possesses 90 percent or more of the nation's wealth. Furthermore, 25 percent of white households have a net worth in excess of $1 million, while it's only 4 percent of black households. So racial wealth inequality is not merely a consequence of the fact that it is unequally distributed within both communities; it is fiercely unequally distributed between the two communities.