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An illustration of a Black person standing on top of a stack of $100 bills against a textured felt background. Christina Animashaun/Vox; Getty Images

The cost of reparations

Economist William “Sandy” Darity and folklorist Kirsten Mullen on how the United States can compensate Black Americans for slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing discrimination.

At the heart of the reparations debate are questions about what reparations for Black Americans could look like.

If cash payments are one way forward, how much money would be sufficient to cover the horrors of centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow and racial discrimination? And how would the United States, with its inflation woes and mounting debt, pay for them?

For the second episode of the “40 Acres,” a special four-part miniseries on Vox Conversations, I talk to the husband and wife duo, economist William “Sandy” Darity and folklorist Kirsten Mullen, about the reparations framework they outline in their book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.

Darity and Mullen’s reparations framework is based on three elements: acknowledgment, redress, and closure.

First the United States would need to recognize and admit the grievous wrongs it has committed against Black Americans, and those who benefited from those wrongs must acknowledge the advantages they’ve gained as a result.

Darity and Mullen’s plan for redress involves compensation to eliminate the racial wealth gap and disparities in income, health, education, incarceration, and more.

Only then would the United States be able to arrive at closure — the point at which Black people and white people can come to terms over the past and unite to create a transformed United States.

The accompanying price tag, as Darity and Mullen calculated it, is $14 trillion. I talked to Darity and Mullen about how they arrived at this figure and how the US could pay for it.

Our conversation also explored their proposed guidelines for eligibility — only Black Americans who have identified as Black for at least the past 12 years, and who can prove that they are descended from people formerly enslaved in the US. And we discussed piecemeal reparations efforts happening across the country, like the housing vouchers doled out to a few Black homeowners in Evanston, Illinois, which they believe take away from the federal government’s responsibility. Ultimately, Darity and Mullen show how America’s unfulfilled promise of land has left Black Americans far behind.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Fabiola Cineas

Why are you focusing on the racial wealth gap in [the context of reparations]?

Kirsten Mullen

I think it’s important to distinguish between wealth and income. Wealth can take the place of income, but income cannot take the place of wealth.

You know, we think of income as one’s earnings. It’s a consequence of actions. It’s a consequence of work, time spent producing services or materials for a fixed fee. Wealth, on the other hand, is a stock of assets. These are things that are happening while you’re sleeping. Interest that’s being earned on investments, on trust accounts, or you’re receiving rents, or you’re receiving mortgage payments from some other individual for property that you own or control. Wealth is the thing that gives individuals a reserve, a cushion. Wealth is a thing that makes it possible for you to move into a neighborhood with high amenities, to put your kids in private primary and secondary schools, elite colleges, if you choose.

Wealth is a thing that makes it possible for individuals to obtain high-quality medical care or legal counsel. Wealth is a thing that allows you, if you choose, to participate in the political process. We know that it’s really important in this country to not only vote, but if you’re able to, also support the political process financially. But not everybody can afford to do that. You know, it’s mostly people who have wealth who have this opportunity to participate in our political life in this way.

Fabiola Cineas

And relatedly, should there be a cap, an income cap on reparations? Like should the wealthiest Black Americans who would be eligible for reparations be [considered]?

Kirsten Mullen

You know, this is not a poverty relief program. Reparations is about a debt that the federal government owes to all Black American descendants of US slavery. When you think about reparations payments that have been made in the past, internationally, but also domestically, they didn’t say, “Oh, this person is too wealthy to receive reparations.” So, no, you know, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan — all these people would absolutely be eligible for reparations. Now they could decide that they did not want to accept them if they chose, but they should not be excluded from reparations.

William “Sandy” Darity

And, you know, they could make the decision to take their reparations payments and use them for whatever purpose they have in mind. One possibility would be to make a donation to the charitable organization that they prefer to support.

Fabiola Cineas

In your reparations framework, you’ve arrived at about $840,000 for each eligible Black household. How did you arrive at this number?

William “Sandy” Darity

We calculated that number on the basis of the estimate of the difference in average wealth between Black and white households that’s reported in the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, which is the most recent survey that was taken to provide information about household net worth.

We arrived at the figure of $840,900, which is the exact difference between white average household net worth and Black average household net worth. If you multiply that figure across the total number of Black households, that differential — that gives you a figure in the vicinity of $14 trillion.

The 40 Acres Vox Conversations series explores where the reparations debate stands now and where it is headed. This series is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Canopy Collective, an independent initiative under fiscal sponsorship of Multiplier. All Vox reporting is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Views expressed are not necessarily those of Canopy Collective or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


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