What Americans Need to Know About Reparations Ahead of This Week’s Big Hearing

Danny Glover and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Danny Glover and Ta-Nehisi Coates are scheduled to testify at the hearing Wednesday. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Theo Wargo/Getty Images and Anna Webber/Getty Images for the New Yorker.

On Wednesday, a House Judiciary subcommittee will hold the first congressional hearing in more than a decade on the subject of reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of the 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations,” and actor Danny Glover are scheduled to testify at the hearing, which will focus in part on H.R. 40, a piece of legislation that would establish a commission “to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans.”

Earlier this week, four leading scholars joined Slate to discuss what they hope to see from the hearing, why they believe reparations are necessary, and what a successful reparations commission might hope to establish. Marcia Chatelain is an associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University; she participated in the school’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. William A. Darity Jr. is a professor of public policy, African and African American studies, and economics at Duke University, who has written extensively on the economics of reparations. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. Roy E. Finkenbine is a professor of history at the University of Detroit Mercy. His work studying 18th- and 19th-century reparations cases was featured in Coates’ essay.

Their conversation, which began with a discussion of what they hope to see in Wednesday’s hearing, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marcia Chatelain: I hope the committee hearing can do three things: 1) Make clear that the reparations movement has long existed, and that the question of recompense is based on 19th-century deliberations about accountability. 2) Make clear that there are a number of financial tools and instruments available for us today to use as a vehicle for reparations. I think that this helps clarify the misguided notion that this is too difficult to do in the present. 3) Recognize that reparations do not end a conversation about the pervasive legacy of white supremacy, racism, and slavery in the United States. Rather, it provides an opportunity to deepen the discourse on breach and is a gesture toward repair for a problem that can never be fully reconciled.

William A. Darity Jr.: I would like the hearing to make it clear that a program of reparations must designate black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States as recipients, that a primary goal of a reparations program must be elimination of the racial wealth gap, and that the injustices that form the basis for the reparations claim must include slavery, nearly a century of legal segregation in the United States, and ongoing racism manifest in police executions of unarmed blacks, mass incarceration, and employment discrimination.

Roy E. Finkenbine: I’d hope to hear several things Wednesday. First, that reparations can come in many forms, including acknowledgment and apology for past wrongs, but that part of the suffering involved can also be monetized. The continuing racial wealth gap from slavery and other oppressions means that the past dramatically affects black Americans’ well-being today. Black Americans, historically 12 percent of the population at any given time, had 1 percent of the national wealth in 1865, and 2 percent a century and a quarter later. Experts tell us that at the current rate it will be 228 years for racial wealth to be equalized. Second, all of this [wealth disparity] is inherited. Timothy Dwight [the president of Yale College from 1795 to 1817] noted that all Americans “inherit … [the] incumbrances” of their ancestors when it comes to past oppressions. Even families like mine, which had little to do with slavery, segregation, etc., have historically benefited from white privilege. The impact is multigenerational. Third, reparations claims have historically been based on Western, democratic, and Judeo-Christian values. And fourth, reparations advocacy has a history dating back to the 18th century. It’s not new or strange.

Darity Jr.: It’s critical that the history of the reparations movement itself be brought into congressional deliberations. The black American demand for reparations is at least 150 years old.

Chatelain: I also hope that someone speaks to the viability and importance of direct cash aid, which is a controversial topic for some. In the conversations surrounding Georgetown’s history of slaveholding, I hear that scholarships, admissions, and other mechanisms that are aligned with the university should serve as reparations. I think that these mechanisms—due to the narrow population a school like Georgetown admits and teaches—are fine, but I believe in actual financial compensation. The notion that reparation monies are earmarked for specific purposes is somewhat paternalistic, and it creates a framework for determining the “right way” for reparations to operate.

Darity Jr.: Marcia is on point! It’s peculiar that no one has complained about direct payments being made to Japanese Americans for unjust incarceration during World War II, or direct payments being made to the victims of the Holocaust. Somehow that issue always comes into play when reparations for black Americans are the topic of consideration. Ironic? Regardless, for both substantive and symbolic reasons, direct payments to eligible recipients must be an important part of a reparations program, particularly if a major objective is to eliminate the racial wealth gulf.

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers: Members should also underscore that reparations are not about holding individuals responsible but rather redressing the myriad ways that the federal, state, and local governments—in the South and in the North—benefited from and upheld slavery and orchestrated circumstances that made slavery’s perpetuation possible.

Darity Jr.: Just a small proviso on Roy’s comment about the 228-year projection. The study in question does not say black and white wealth will be equalized in 228 years; it says, under current conditions, it will take 228 years for blacks to reach the level of wealth currently held by whites. To close the racial wealth gap, we need to move the black share in national wealth from 2–3 percent to 12–13 percent. That should be a central objective of a reparations program for black Americans.

That’s also a great point from Roy on the importance of understanding the impact of black oppression on white advantage, regardless of whether individual whites come from families directly implicated in slavery or the slave trade.

Jones-Rogers: I also think it is vital that those speaking before the committee remind them/the public of the fact that the federal government had no problem with compensating slave owners for emancipation while not allocating a dime to the enslaved. The D.C. Emancipation Act of April 1862—which I discuss in my book and which Tera Hunter discussed in a recent op-ed in the New York Times—actually paid slave owners a set amount for eligible slaves if they applied for it and offered proof of ownership. In addition to this, Lincoln’s September 1862 Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation called for compensating slave owners in all states that voluntarily agreed to emancipate black Americans.

Darity Jr.: It is important to note, though, that D.C. is the only site where compensated emancipation actually was undertaken.

Jones-Rogers: Absolutely, William! My point was that the federal government was quite comfortable with the idea of compensating slave owners, even if slave owners and slave states refused such proposals for compensation.

Chatelain: Talitha LeFlouria’s book about black women and convict leasing is an excellent illustration of the federal commitment to reparations to the South. The rebuilding of the South [after the Civil War] was an economically intensive effort to make Southerners whole and further linked Jim Crow to the needs of the state and private industry.

I will say that having been an observer on the issue of reparations on my campus, the word reparations can inspire a lot of feelings of defensiveness and shame.

Finkenbine: Contemporary white Americans say they’d support reparations for slavery if only black Americans had raised the issue at the time of emancipation. They conveniently forget 40 acres and a mule, the slave pension movement, and other claims.

Darity Jr.: In our forthcoming book on reparations, From Here to Equality, Kirsten Mullen and I argue that a key dimension of a reparations program must be addressing historical memory. We need to ensure that young people receive an accurate and comprehensive curriculum on slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, and the post-slavery world in America. We need a complete and detailed counterpoint to the false narrative that the United Daughters of the Confederacy has installed in our nation’s schools.

Chatelain: You are all getting to the heart of the matter: a real lack of historical knowledge on slavery coupled with a deep contempt for accountability. In light of all my cynicism, I appreciate that this conversation, and its complexity, has so many people to help frame it.

Jones-Rogers: The ADOS (American Descendants of Slaves/Slavery) movement is a powerful one, even if many academics seem inclined to dismiss it. And I think that the broader discussion about/around reparations will ensure that the ADOS movement can’t be ignored for much longer. Members argue that American descendants of slaves have not been the primary recipients/beneficiaries of the gains experienced by African-descended people in the U.S. since emancipation, and they call for policies/programs that will change this. H.R. 40 seeks to address the question of who will be eligible.

Darity Jr.: The key point being made by ADOS is that blacks who have enslaved ancestors in the U.S. have a particular diaspora history that merits restitution from the federal government for a full trajectory of harms dating from slavery to the present moment.

Jones-Rogers: In my book, I talk about the important role that former slave-owning women, and their immediate descendants, played in constructing a narrative about their relationships to slavery in which they were depicted as maternal figures who cared for their “black charges,” individuals who were “born” into slave ownership and thus indirectly benefited from having access to enslaved people’s labor, bodies, and the wealth they produced (many women hired the slaves they owned to others and pocketed the wages they earned), or flat out argued that African-descended people were uncivilized savages who benefited from slavery because it introduced them to Christianity and civilization. All of these ideas bubble underneath the surface of reparations debates, particularly those who argue against reparations. The hearing will expose some of these lies, I hope. Experts will hopefully speak about the lived experiences of enslaved African Americans and about the brutality of the regime.

Chatelain: When I tell my students the wealth gap statistics, they gasp. Then, I walk them through all the assets that can be passed down generations, and we talk about value.

Darity Jr.: Again, I set as a key target elimination of the racial wealth gap. The idea of “baby bonds” was developed by Darrick Hamilton and myself. It’s a universal program providing a federally funded trust account to each newborn infant. The amounts would be dictated by the wealth position of the child’s family and become available to the child when they reach young adulthood. Sen. Cory Booker has a version that does set constraints on possible uses of the funds, but it is possible to design the program with no restrictions.

But, regardless, baby bonds are not reparations. Baby bonds center on getting everyone closer to the median level of wealth in the U.S., which is approximately $97,000 per household. (Black median wealth was estimated to be $17,600 in 2016.) But to close the racial wealth gap, you need to target the mean difference in net worth. At the mean, the average white household has $800,000 more in net worth than the average black household. Baby bonds cannot approach closing that gap, much as I like the proposal. Reparations are a must to achieve that goal.

Jones-Rogers: I have major concerns about just how far any of these conversations will go in large part because of the government’s long-standing refusal to commit to protecting human rights more broadly and the government’s recent refusal to embrace initiatives that seek to draw attention to the violation of African-descended people’s rights more specifically.

Darity Jr.: Michael Dawson and Rovana Popoff estimated that in 2000, 4 percent of white Americans were in favor of reparations for black Americans. In 2016, a survey indicated that percentage had risen to 15 percent—and a survey last year found that close to half of millennials and a majority of Democrats favor reparations. I think that a report from a commission activated by legislation akin to H.R. 40, if the right people are appointed as commissioners, can move a still larger share of Americans into the favorable column.

Finkenbine: Those are hopeful numbers. One thread that I see throughout our chat is the need to better inform the public about slavery, segregation, and historic inequality.

Jones-Rogers: I’m kinda fascinated that this issue is being taken up in the way that it is in the Trump era. The 2020 election may provide us with the confluence of circumstances necessary to move the conversation in the direction of action rather than mere talk.