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The flaws in the reparations bill

A commission that investigates restitution for the descendants of slaves should be constrained by some key principles.

Weathered steel columns etched with the names of Black lynching victims hang from the roof of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.
Weathered steel columns etched with the names of Black lynching victims hang from the roof of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.NYT

We are living in eerie times, trapped in a science fiction novel we cannot escape. We cope with a deadly pandemic, disruptions in work and schooling, and the deadly effects of anti-Black police violence. In this climate, an astonishing shift has occurred in American attitudes toward Black reparations.

A poll conducted in June found that half of Americans, including 39 percent of white people, today support the creation of a commission to study reparations proposals for African Americans and provide Congress with a legislative road map for restitution. HR 40, a bill first introduced to Congress in 1989 by the late Representative John Conyers of Michigan, already provides one route for such a commission to be established.

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The bill has been a useful placeholder for three decades. Now is an opportune time to ensure that it can become an effective vehicle for true reparations.

Unfortunately, the bill, as last revised in 2017, gives the proposed commission complete discretion over the content of the reparations proposal it reports to Congress. This increases the possibility that it will fail to deliver justice. More than 30 years after this bill was introduced, we have learned a great deal about how best to structure a plan for Black reparations. If a Congressional commission on reparations is established, it should be directed to produce a plan that meets what we now know are essential requirements.

The “40” in the bill’s title is a nod to the 40-acre land grant each emancipated household was promised at the end of the Civil War. That promise was unfulfilled. In contrast, from 1862 to 1938 over 1.5 million white American households received 160-acre land grants from the government through the Homestead Act, assets that established the foundation for today’s immense Black-white wealth gulf. By 2019, the racial wealth chasm averaged $850,000 per household. Black descendants of American chattel slavery constitute 13 percent of the nation’s population but possess only 2.5 percent of the nation’s wealth.

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To establish the material basis for full Black citizenship, we must eliminate the wealth chasm.

Given this objective, three components of a Black reparations plan are essential:

Eligibility: Eligible recipients should be Black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States — descendants of those denied the promised 40 acres. This would encompass 90 percent of the Black population, approximately 40 million people. To establish eligibility, an individual must satisfy two criteria. First, they must meet a lineage standard: At least one of their forebears was enslaved. Second, they must meet an identity standard: Individuals must provide proof that they have self-identified as Black, African American, or Negro on official documents for at least 12 years prior to the enactment of a reparations program or the enactment of a reparations commission, whichever comes first.

Reducing the wealth disparity: The Black-white wealth differential is a powerful economic indicator of the cumulative, intergenerational effects of structural racism on living descendants of slaves. Compounding the initial denial of 40 acres, throughout the succeeding century of legal segregation, white terrorism prevailed. In dozens of communities including Elaine, Ark.; Wilmington, N.C.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Ocoee, Fla., where Blacks had gained a toehold in local politics and built commercial and residential districts, they were the targets of violent property seizures and massacres by whites.

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In the 20th century, wealth accumulation for a broad swath of Americans shifted from landownership to homeownership. The government promoted access to homeownership on a racialized basis. From restrictive covenants to redlining to the discriminatory application of the GI Bill and distribution of Federal Housing Administration mortgage loans, Black people were systematically denied resources that white people readily used to become homeowners.

We have estimated it will require at least $10 trillion to bring the Black share of wealth at least into proportion with the Black share of the US population.

Direct payments: For both symbolic and substantive reasons, a reparations plan must involve direct payments — whether via trust accounts, cash transfers, or other types of assets — to eligible recipients. Other proposals — using reparations to establish scholarships or community-wide programs — risk not reaching those who merit redress. Scholarships are hardly the silver bullet; Black heads of household with a college degree have two-thirds of the net worth of white heads of household who dropped out of high school. Community-wide programs will not measure up in a world where gentrification is rapidly changing local demographics.

Some organizations and individuals who have been influential in the development of HR 40 do not share our vision, however, which means the current version of the bill runs the risk of failing to meet the core objectives we have outlined.

These groups, including the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA) and allies, prefer not to target reparations specifically for Black American descendants of US chattel slavery. They contend that reparations for a broader group could be warranted because descendants of Black immigrants whose ancestors were not enslaved in this country also have been victimized by American racism.

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However, only Black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States have borne the cumulative, multi-generational burden of the effects of slavery, the Jim Crow era, and atrocities such as mass incarceration after the civil rights era. Prior to the 1960s, less than 1 percent of the US Black population consisted of people who did not share an ancestral connection to American slavery. The Black immigrants who have come to the United States since then did not have their wealth position forged by America’s process of economic development; instead it was created by conditions that existed in other parts of the world. If they have claims for reparations, they should be lodged against other nations, not the US government. A lack of specificity in the eligibility requirements could undermine the entire effort.

Moreover, NCOBRA and allies have called for the formation of a third party, a “trust authority,” to manage reparations monies, removing discretion over funds from the hands of eligible recipients. In contrast, direct compensatory payments to victims and their descendants were made in four major reparations projects executed over the past 70 years: German restitution for Holocaust survivors; US government restitution for wrongfully interning Japanese Americans during World War II; the fund for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and relatives; and the fund for families who lost children during the Sandy Hook massacre.

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Regardless of who serves on the commission that HR 40 would create, we must avoid the hazard that it produces a report that fails to advance the three critical features identified here. Redesigning HR 40 along these lines can make it a springboard for true reparations.

William A. (“Sandy”) Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen are authors of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century.” Darity is director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University and a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Mullen is a writer, arts consultant, folklorist, and lecturer whose work focuses on race, history, and politics.