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REPARATIONS

Professors from Brown, UMass-Boston testify in D.C. about reparations and racial wealth gaps

“It’s all part of the same project,” Brown University professor Seth Rockman said of Providence’s reparations budget and the work of the Congressional subcommittee. “The present is indebted to the past in various ways.”

The US Capitol in Washington.Al Drago/Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — College professors from Providence and Boston testified before a Congressional subcommittee Wednesday morning on the role of US financial institutions in the creation of racial wealth gaps caused by slavery.

Speaking before members of Congress, Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown University, and Dania Francis, an assistant professor of economics at UMass-Boston, discussed the role of slavery in the development of American capitalism and wealth disparities between Black and white Americans.

Even though much of the testimony was national in scope, Providence’s recent $10 million reparations budget, Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Report, and recent moves by the Boston City Council toward a new citywide reparations commission show that the fight for racial equity hits close to home in New England.

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“It’s all part of the same project,” said Rockman, when asked about Providence’s reparations budget and the work of the Congressional subcommittee. “The present is indebted to the past in various ways.”

“Boston, like many jurisdictions, continues to grapple with racial discrimination,” said Francis in an interview after the hearing. She said she had offered public comment in favor of a Boston reparations commission last year, and lauded the work of Jemadari Kamara, an associate professor of Africana Studies at UMass-Boston who is a member of the team working on the Boston proposal.

At the hearing — led by Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee Chair Representative Al Green of Texas — members sought to advance legislation that would force large US insurers and banks to carry out a government-mandated racial equity audit every two years. The audit would evaluate current practices on diversity and inclusion, as well as investigate any historical ties to slavery.

Any fines collected from non-compliance with the auditing process would go toward a new “Office of Reparations Programs” in the US Treasury.

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Representative Ann Wagner of Missouri, the lone Republican member sitting in on the hearing, said high inflation was disproportionately affecting low-income, rural, and minority populations, and said Congress could help right existing wealth gaps by trying to reduce inflation.

William Darity Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University, stressed that racial wealth gaps were caused by intergenerational transfers of wealth, with income differences having a “marginal” impact.

Francis — an economist — spoke in her testimony about how wealth disparities between white and Black Americans have existed since Emancipation. She said that in 1860, five years before Emancipation, Black Americans owned 2 cents for every dollar of white wealth, and that that number only increased to 4 cents for every dollar of white wealth by 1870, five years after Emancipation.

In the question and answer period, Francis pointed to education as critical in bridging what Green called the “perfect victim” phenomenon, in which current Americans failed to appreciate the contributions of former slaves to America.

“We need to be in these school board meetings,” said Francis, pointing to a way in which citizens could become involved in racial equity locally. “We are afraid of teaching the history of this country.”

In his testimony, Rockman said that the growth of economic opportunity for Americans was in many ways built on the “exploited labor… of Black Americans.” He pointed to Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Report — in which Brown investigated its own involvement with slavery — as evidence that trying to come to terms with the past can be a way to look forward, a possible model for the nation.

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“The presence of enslaved labor in the US South skewed the entire labor market in the United States as a whole,” said Rockman when asked by Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib about the impact of the slave system on broader labor markets.

He also stressed that Rhode Island and Massachusetts textile mills in the 19th century were deeply tied to the slave economy in the South through the purchase of cotton, implicating even northern industries in the slave system.

While Rockman said that the proposal from the Subcommittee was not reparations — which would require a much larger redistribution of wealth — ”nonetheless, restitution of some sorts should be made and this will be an important first step.”

Conversations about reparations on the federal, state, and local level have increased in recent years in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd.

In Providence, Mayor Jorge Elorza recently signed-off on a $10 million budget for a municipal reparations program. The plan — which instead of direct cash payments funds a number of programs meant to support Black residents — has come under attack for being open to White residents as well.

This week, Providence opened the bidding process for the reparations programs, as previously reported by the Globe.

“The question of reparations should not be framed in the context of either/or,” said Kamara, the UMass-Boston professor involved with the proposed Boston reparations commission. “The resolution in Boston is essential to engage in conversations here. But that does not exclude conversations occurring at the level of the state or federally.”

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As examples of where reparations work is happening on different levels throughout the country, Kamara pointed to HR 40 — which has nearly 200 co-sponsors in the US House of Representatives and would start an investigatory commission for reparations proposals — and an active state panel in California that is in the midst of a multi-year process to come up with possible reparations programs.

All nine of Massachusetts’ US House members have co-sponsored HR 40, as well as both of Rhode Island’s US representatives.

“I don’t discourage local efforts at all,” said Francis. “I just hope that they’re used to catalyze and build towards a national effort, which is frankly what is needed to get even close to what is needed to address this.”