By A. Kirsten Mullen / Bloomberg Opinion
More than a century and a half after the official end of chattel slavery in the United States, the idea of paying reparations is finally gaining some momentum. A congressional bill named H.R. 40 — after the 40 acres that the U.S. government promised but never delivered to the formerly enslaved — has emerged from committee for the first time since the late Rep. John Conyers initially introduced it in 1989, and might even proceed to a vote.
Unfortunately, even if the legislation passes, it’s highly unlikely to deliver true reparations. On the contrary, it could undermine the whole project.
Why, some readers might ask, are people talking about reparations at all? Hasn’t this country already had a civil rights movement and a Black president?
Let’s assume for a moment, as I hope we all do, that race does not determine a person’s abilities. It follows that, in the absence of racism, the average wealth of Black and white Americans should be roughly equivalent, or at least trending in that direction. Yet government data going back to the 1940s show a vast and persistent racial wealth gap. As of 2019, the average net worth of Black families stood at less than 15 percent of their white counterparts. This difference, which amounts to some $14 trillion, reflects the extent to which centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws, disproportionate application of the Homestead Act, ongoing mass incarceration, inequitable housing policies, predatory finance and much more have enriched one race at the expense of the other. Closing the gap is not only a moral imperative. It’s also a growth opportunity: By providing financial resources to many of the country’s most disadvantaged, it could make the economy more resilient and unlock the productive potential of millions.
H.R. 40 is the only draft legislation to raise the issue of redress since the Reconstruction era. Yet it does no more than call for the creation of a U.S. congressional commission to study and develop proposals, while offering little direction on how to proceed. Reparations could end up defined as anything from an elaborate apology to the endorsement of piecemeal and woefully inadequate measures; such as a Vermont effort that invites white people to donate cash to Black people who sign up to receive it, or an Evanston, Ill., program that has so far made available a mere $400,000 to compensate Black families for five decades of housing discrimination.
Worse, H.R. 40 contains numerous structural flaws. Among other things, the commission would be exempt from the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which ensures transparency in the form of public hearings, agendas and periodic reports. Seven of the commission’s 15 members — which, oddly, the bill considers enough to establish a quorum — would be appointed by the administrative director from the “major civil society and reparations organizations” of that person’s choice. No elected officials would be allowed to serve, and members would earn salaries of as much as $172,000 a year. The potential outcome: An obscure, unrepresentative process in which co-opted members reach an unsatisfactory result, potentially discrediting the very concept.
A proper reparations program should rest on four pillars.
• Claimants must meet both lineage and identity tests. They should be able to trace their ancestry to a person who was enslaved in the U.S. (and hence would have been eligible for the federal government’s original 40-acre land grants), and they should have self-identified as Black, African American, Afro-American or Negro at least 12 years prior to the establishment of a reparations commission or program. A government agency run by professionally trained genealogists should be set up to assist free of charge.
• The redress should bring the average wealth of Black households up to the level of their white counterparts. As long as a racial wealth gap exists, the account cannot be considered settled.
• Payments should be made directly to eligible recipients. This is how governments have remunerated countless groups, including Holocaust victims and Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II. More recently, the U.S. government paid reparations averaging $2 million to families that lost loved ones during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Each of the Americans held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979-80 was paid $10,000 per day of captivity, or about $4.4 million each.
• The federal government must pay the debt. This is the entity that gave itself the right and authority to enslave Black people and to institute nearly a century of legal segregation. It sanctioned or turned a blind eye to nearly 100 white terror campaigns involving the seizure and appropriation of Black property. It’s also the only entity with the capacity to pay the debt. Taken together, the country’s city and state budgets amount to $3.1 trillion a year, a fraction of what’s owed.
H.R. 40 will not deliver reparations to Black descendants of U.S. slavery and should be scrapped. America deserves legislation based on strong moral principles; a congressional mandate to guide the nation in the payment of a debt that is 156 years overdue.
A. Kirsten Mullen is a folklorist and founder of Artefactual, an arts consultancy. She is co-author with William A. Darity Jr. of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.”