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Harvard symposium seeks to answer: Can reparations close the racial health gap?

The Middle Passage Port Marker in Boston Harbor is meant to acknowledge Boston's history of slavery and honor the Africans who survived or perished on the transatlantic voyage.Steven Senne/Associated Press

The enslavement of Africans in the United States has created a wealth gap between Black and white Americans today amounting to a staggering $14 trillion, according to William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr., a professor of African American Studies at Duke University.

Darity discussed that number at Harvard University on Thursday during a symposium titled “Can reparations close the racial health gap?”

The wealth gap, Darity said, places a stubborn barrier between Black Americans and their access to quality housing, employment, education, social capital, and health resources, raising the question: How can Black communities in Boston and across the nation receive reparations to ensure a more equitable society?

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“The failure to provide Black American descendants of slavery with any compensation in the present moment is a tragedy,” Darity said. “If we do nothing, we will continue to set the nation on a path towards a set of genocidal practices directed at Black America.”

William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr. attended the symposium via Zoom, with panelists (from left) Jemadari Kamara, Dania V. Francis, Ruqaiijah Yearby, and the Rev. Cornell William Brooks. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Through a partnership between the François-Xavier Bagnoud, or FXB, Center for Health and Human Rights and the Harvard Public Health Magazine, guest speakers gathered for the eight-hour symposium to discuss health inequities among Black Americans and examine “the persistent toll of anti-Black racism and avenues for redress,” according to the center’s website.

Darity was one of four panelists at a session entitled “A Toxic Legacy: How the history of systemic anti-Black racism shapes health.” Darity was joined by the Rev. Cornell William Brooks, the moderator of the panel and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School; Dania V. Francis, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston; Jemadari Kamara, the chairman of Africana studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston; and Ruqaiijah Yearby, a law professor at Saint Louis University.

Yearby discussed the direct connection between wealth and health in Black communities, and how a history of racist policies like the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws designed to limit Black Americans from building wealth continue to impose dire consequences on their mental and physical well-being.

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“We continue to see the failure for law to actually redress the steering of Black individuals into low-wage occupations or their access to higher pay,” Yearby said. “Structural racism, discrimination, sexism is perpetuated through law, and that is associated with increased rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, as well as infant mortality rates for people of color.”

The panelists called for the creation of a “reparations commission” to help Americans understand and create an action plan to provide Black Americans with reparations to combat the economic, social, and political disadvantages that still plague Black communities as a result of slavery. But the panelists agreed that reparations are only one piece of the puzzle. To completely eradicate injustice, America will have to redefine its perception and relationships with Black people, they said.

“The repair that we’re seeking to address by virtue of a commission ... [needs] to lead us out in ways that will reconstruct our human relationships,” Kamara said.

The symposium tackled nuanced topics including “health justice scholarship,” with Brittney Butler, a social epidemiologist, and Marie Plaisime, an FXB Health and Human Rights Fellow; a talk on health’s role in “municipal, state and federal reparations programs” with Yvette Modestin, a prominent leader and activist at the nexus between African American and Latin American communities, and Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia, among others; and a conversation focused on the primary question of the symposium, “Can reparations close the racial wealth gap?” with moderator Madina Agénor, an assistant professor in the department of behavioral and social sciences and the center for health promotion and health equity at Brown University, and Rachel Hardeman, a reproductive health equity researcher at the University of Minnesota, among others.

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The event also hosted a conversation about “media and public discourse on Anti-Black racism and reparations” with Meredith D. Clark, an associate professor of journalism and communication studies at Northeastern University, Deborah D. Douglas, co-editor of The Emancipator, among others.

A talk from keynote speaker Kamilah Moore, a reparatory justice scholar and attorney, concluded the event. Closing comments were delivered by Natalia Linos, a social epidemiologist and the executive director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard.


Katie Mogg can be reached at katie.mogg@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @j0urnalistkatie