Addressing centuries of racist policy is a critical solution to today’s social unrest, explains law professor Mehrsa Baradaran in an interview with HuffPost.
Defunding the police is just part of the structural reform needed to root out racism in the U.S., says Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the economic inequities between Black and white Americans.
What’s truly needed is a big-picture rethink of U.S. policy at every level, she told HuffPost in an interview by phone and in follow-ups over email this week.
In her 2017 book “The Color of Money,” Baradaran lays out how, over centuries, policymakers wrote Black Americans out of the economic system — and how policies blocking Black people from obtaining mortgages, land and credit created an immense wealth gap between Black and white Americans that persists to this day. In her book, Baradaran says that after slavery was abolished, Black Americans held just .5% of all the wealth in the U.S. Today, the number is barely higher, at about 1%.
Baradaran’s work resonates now as millions protest around the U.S. ― speaking out not only against police brutality against Black Americans, but the systemic racism that pervades America’s institutions. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the devastating effects of this inequality, as Black Americans disproportionately bear the brunt of fatalities from the virus and its economic fallout.
Baradaran worked with a few 2020 Democratic presidential contenders ― Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg ― on their policy proposals for addressing the racial wealth gap.
HuffPost spoke with Baradaran by phone about how her research applies to the social unrest gripping the country right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On Twitter, a reporter from The Washington Post asked what public policy would do the most to address the anger expressed around the country right now. You said: “Reparations.”
The [killing] of George Floyd ignited the protests, but the underlying issues are longstanding. When we talk about remedies, we really have to go back and look at this problem holistically, historically and at the roots. It is a structural issue: hundreds of years of racist policies ― economic, housing, criminal, education.
I teach contract law. When you break a contract, you pay damages. We’ve broken the contract with Black America. We promised equal protection and equal rights and equality several times, and we violated it each time.
After the Civil War, the freedmen were freed, theoretically. The Southern police system and the sharecropping system re-enslaved them. Jim Crow. There wasn’t a remedy.
Then the New Deal. Another big structural moment. We create the white suburbs with federally funded, subsidized credit. It rewrote our economy from scratch. Blacks were completely left out. [You can read more about racist New Deal policy in “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s groundbreaking 2014 essay in The Atlantic.]
Then, there’s racially explicit contracts that say you cannot sell this house to a Black person. These are all embedded in law.
Then, we say those laws are illegal [with civil rights legislation in the 1960s] but don’t do anything to fix the long-lasting effects of all of those racist policies.
When you break a contract, you pay damages. We’ve broken the contract with Black America. We promised equal protection and equal rights and equality several times, and we violated it each time.Mehrsa Baradaran, author and law professor at the University of California, Irvine
In your book, you write about race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Wilmington, North Carolina, in the 19th century, for example. These are instances where white people violently force Black people out of their homes, businesses and entire cities.
Black families had the common experiences of moving into white neighborhoods and getting bombed, shot at, threatened with guns and violence.
The state institutionalized that violence. Instead of bombing the houses and having a race riot outside of a Black person’s house, which happened all the time, you instead put it into a contract. Saying you can’t give this house to a Black person, we’ll take you to court.
The lawyers came in and did the work of the mobs. The Federal Housing Authority was that. The government bureaucrats did the work of what race riots achieved.
We embedded racism into policy. And how do you get that out? How do you fix that? I think reparations is the only answer.
And I think a process of reparations should involve truth and reconciliation. Let’s sit and talk about it. Have experts. Here are the witnesses. Here is the data. Here is what happened. Lay it all out.
We all know what the process is like to do something wrong and make up for it. You learn it in Sunday school, yoga, whatever is your spiritual practice. Making amends is part of that.
What else would reparations involve?
Reparations are giving the Black community what they’ve always deserved. Giving them exactly what was given to whites.
How was wealth extracted from Black communities? It was through laws and policies and institutions that worked for whites and not Blacks. Every institution that benefited from these harms would account for them and make them up.
We have the funds. We saw this with the coronavirus. Over a weekend, the Fed infused trillions of dollars into the repo markets and into the economy. We don’t have limits of resources. We have limits of empathy and imagination.
In practice, does that mean Black Americans are getting checks from different institutions?
It would depend. What does the institution do? Within each organization, target the places where the pain is.
If it’s the FHA [Federal Housing Administration], what white people got was a guaranteed mortgage by the federal government that was really low-interest. So it would be down payment assistance, or you could do grants of houses.
I wrote the 21st century Homestead Act, which would take a formerly redlined Black community with a lot of abandoned properties; one of the hubs of poverty. The cities would take these properties, redevelop and give them through a grant to Black residents. [More detail on Baradaran’s housing proposal here.]
At the Department of Education, you could cancel Black student debt. Cancel all debt. Cancel debt for students at historically Black universities.
The IRS: We do this big mortgage interest rate deduction, which is a regressive tax. You end that. End that and you figure out how to make taxing progressive.
If you talk to any agency, they know where the bodies are hidden. The point of this would be to shift the thinking and figure out ways to reverse these problems.
Hard to imagine that happening.
Let me give an example of something that has worked in this area. The Congressional Budget Office runs this cost-benefit analysis. Every agency action, every regulation, every statute, every bill has to filter through this analysis of how much does it add to the debt? It constrains all regulatory action. Every time I work on legislation with anyone, they’re like, “Well, how would you score this?”
I’m proposing something like that. Just score it as what are its effects on the racial wealth gap?
What do police reparations look like in this framework? Would “defund the police” make sense when it comes to structural reform?
The system of policing in America is deeply racist. W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out that policing basically began in the South as a way to criminalize Black freedom and enforce Black labor laws. Policing in other countries is just vastly different from ours, and so is punishment for crime.
Policing has always been more targeted toward Black and Brown communities. From top to bottom ― sentencing, arrests, criminal codes ― from the way they are written to the way they are enforced. It’s embedded. So you have to dismantle that whole system to achieve justice.
There is such a skewed funding structure ― police vs. every other agency. So yes, defund police and put those funds in education, public parks, etc. I mean, look at police funding in white suburban neighborhoods vs. funds for public places and work toward equality there.
Police killings are just the tip of the iceberg ― they are the part of the injustice that we can see and be horrified by.
But I want to be clear about this: We as a society are paying for this system of policing. Those people in the suburbs who are horrified [by social unrest] are complicit in the system that keeps their neighborhoods “safe” and the “bad neighborhoods” under constant surveillance.
So while we should definitely reform police and hold them accountable, that is just the bare minimum ― it’s like treating the system that comes to the surface, putting a Band-Aid on it, and letting the cancer continue on.
Unless we treat the cancer, we can’t stop these police killings. And the police should not be carrying the entire burden of our racist history.
I know you’ve worked on a few Democratic campaigns. Where do you see policymakers on this?
The window has shifted on reparations. I think people understand it is on the table at least. And look, I don’t care what you call it. I think the theory for me is just fixing the damage. Justice.
I hope a Biden administration considers the scale of the problem and has a large-scale solution to match.
Descendants of African American slaves have never been compensated for one of the worst crimes against humanity. The lost wages suffered by slaves and the asset value of slaves to the slave holders are estimated to be well over one trillion US dollars in today’s money. Equally important is the value of the promise of land to freed slaves, commonly known as Fortyacres and a mule.
The word restitution is used deliberately meaning the recovery and return of benefits obtained through improper means. Slavery in the United States was particularly abominable because it was chattel slavery, meaning people were the property of owners and bought and sold as property. As such, slavery was the largest and most important input in agricultural production in the 19th century in the US.
A common argument against reparations for American slavery is that it was legal at the time. However, at the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis were brought to justice after WW II, the US prosecutor Robert H. Jackson said common law recognizes rules of conduct (that individuals must be held accountable for their actions) and that this is sufficient to establish guilt and judgments of wrong doings, regardless of precedent.
In the case of slavery, Europe tacitly permitted slavery in its colonies, but slavery was prohibited in Europe and Africa, and for Natives in the Americas. It was widely recognized that chattel slavery and permanent slavery was morally wrong and this is sufficient to establish guilt and judgments of wrong-doings in the US.
In the US slavery ended with the Confiscation Acts and Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the 13th Amendment made slavery illegal in 1865. The Civil War started in 1861 and ended in 1865 and many slaves fought in it, both as slaves for the South and as wage labor for the Union. After Abolition in 1865, Special Field Order No. 15 of the US Army confiscated 400,000 acres of land along the Atlantic coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina and approximately 18,000 freedmen where settled there. They were each given 40 acres, but on a temporary basis. They were also to receive a mule, left over from the war. This coined the expression “Forty acres and a mule.” At the end of Reconstruction in 1877 most of that land was given back to Whites.
The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 was designed to make 40 acres available to those emancipated from slavery – known as Freedmen. This transition went along as well as it could while US Federal troops oversaw this plan. But in 1877 troops retreated and these arrangements disintegrated. Census data does not separate White and Black farmers until 1900, but W.E.B. Du Bois estimated that Black farmers owned 3 million acres in 1875 and 8 million in 1890. The peak year, from census data, shows 12 million acres in 1910 fully owned by 175,290 non-whites and partially owned by 43,177 non-white farmers. Roughly, this is 60 acres per farm.
Because of the rising prices in cotton, many of those Black farmers did very well initially. But as Jim Crow laws set in and racial segregation was the norm in Southern States, farm operating contracts became more difficult for Blacks to secure. By the 1930s, there was a collapse of the economy and many farms, including Black owned ones were abandoned. In the 2010 Census there are 45,000 Black owned farms listed.
In 1863, over 90 percent of Blacks lived in the South. The majority of the population in South Carolina and Mississippi were African Americans. And more than 40 percent in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.
Starting in the early 20th century more than 6 million Afrodescendants began the Great Migration. Also known as the the Great Northward Migration or the Black Migration. These African-Americans moved from rural Southern states to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West. Only recently many African Americans moved back to the South, especially Atlanta, but also Birmingham and other cities that offer good economic opportunities.
The 1910 agricultural census shows over 3 million farms in the South farming 354 million acres. This is down by 7 million acres from the 1900 census. Those figures continued to decline over time. Currently, the South farms 270 million acres. Maps of this census show that almost all farms in the South were less than 80 acres, except for areas around Savannah.
The census of 1910 does not distinguish between sharecroppers and tenants. It lists 670,000 Black tenant farmers and 1,200 Black farm managers cultivating 27 million acres. This amounts to 40 acres per farm. Both tenant farming and sharecropping existed well into the 1950s. The census of 1910 shows the largest number of Black farmers compared to census data before and after. This shows, that the Southern Black community was capable of farming 27 million acres of land, cultivated by 670,000 Black families. But these families were denied the ownership of this land and had to till as sharecroppers withholding any opportunity to accumulate assets. In essence, slavery converted into feudalism, the very system many of these White landowners fled from in Europe. For the White landowners, not much changes between the previous system of chattel slavery and sharecropping in terms of economic gains. Both systems allowed for an economy that benefited Whites, and that left Blacks marginalized with no outlook for improving household income or for accumulating any assets.
The lack of the opportunity to accumulate assets means descendants of these families remain asset poor as well. Current poverty programs only address income and not assets. Thus asset poverty persists to this day. While this holds true for Whites as well, Black asset accumulation is much more difficult. Throughout US history, lynchings and illegal seizures of Black-owned farms were common in the rural South. Also common was the discrimination against Black farmers to obtain loans and farm assistance. African-American farmers were either denied or had to wait longer for loan approvals. In agriculture, where timely availability of credit is imperative to run a farm successfully, receiving credit for seeds is meaningless if the time for planting has already passed.
Based on these events and historical data, a dollar value can be calculated for the promise of Forty acres and a mule. Applying the 2017 average value of Southern Agricultural land at $3,200 US dollars per acre, the total value of land farmed by Black tenants in 1910 is $86.8 billion US dollars. This represents assets that were denied the Black community.
There are other researchers who have calculated damages suffered by Afrodescendants. Thomas Craemer, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, used Field Order No. 15 and the Reparations Bill. He then attached an average price of $3,020 per acre in 2015, and multiplied this by 3,953,760 slaves from the 1860 census. This yielded a number of $486 billion US dollars.
However, Creamer’s methodology suffers from false assumption. Specifically, Field Order No. 15 states that “three respectable Negroes, heads of families ….. shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” In other words, the intention of Field Order No. 15 was not to give 40 acres to each slave, but rather to a portion of such individuals that would be able to conduct agricultural production on 40 acres. Also, Reparations Bill H.R. 29 which was introduced in 1867 by the Radical Republican Senator Thaddeus Stevens, states that “each male who is the head of a family …. or each widow who is the head of a family…” shall receive 40 acres. In other words, the promise was not 40 acres for all slaves, but rather land for a family unit of, perhaps, four or five, which would be necessary to successfully till 40 acres. This shows, that Craemer’s calculations overestimate the value of the potential assets of Forty acres and a mule that was due to the Black community after Abolition.
If the Reparations Bill would have been enacted, approximately 800,000 families would have been given 40 acres of land. The value of this land, in 2017 dollars is $102 billion US dollars, a number similar to the one calculated using Black shareholder farming in 1910. In other words, the unfulfilled promise of Forty acres and a mule can be valued between $86.8 billion and $102 billion US dollars using the capacity of Black farmers as sharecroppers in 1910 and the potential of Black family units as farmers in 1867. From a strictly forensic economics approach, these calculations represent the failed promise of Forty acres and a mule. It is important to note, that these numbers hold steady for over 40 years and they demonstrate the importance of an economy based on agriculture in the South of the US which was denied to the Black community.
Other economists have looked at the total value of slavery to the economy before Abolition. On one hand, slavery was unpaid labor; on the other hand, slaves were like capital that had a value in the market place. Larry Neal, an economist at the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana, looked at wages between 1620 and 1840 and compounded these at 3 percent into the 1980s. His estimates for lost wages during that period are $1.4 trillion in 2016 US dollars. It shows how much White farmers benefited from slavery. Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, estimated a similar number, $5 to $10 trillion US dollars as an accumulated gain in wealth for White Southerners.
Tim Worstall, a journalist, used the market value of an enslaved person, and then calculated the total wealth of having slaves, as an asset, at a compounded 1 percent to be about $1.75 trillion US dollars, or about $40,000 US dollars to each Afrodescendant today. Slaves had different prices depending on their skill levels as either artisans or domestics, or if they were known runaways or had physical impairments. Women commanded a higher price than men for obvious reasons.
But after Abolition this asset disappeared. French economist Thomas Pikkety developed a graph reproduced here as Figure 11, which illustrates the changing nature of wealth. This shows (indicated in red) how valuable slavery was to the economy.
All of these economic calculations related to slavery in the US are important as they demonstrate the value of slavery to the economy and to the structure of the economic system which persists until today. Adding the three most essential components of slavery, lost wages, the value of slaves and the lost promise of Forty acres and a mule amounts to an accumulated wealth of $ 3.83 trillion dollars. This amount is the lower value of the total range of damages suffered by Afrodescendants and does not include the damages that result from discrimination in access to farm credit, mortgages and many other asset accumulation opportunities. Such calculations should be seen as added to the total value of restitution owed to the Black community. No single calculation is sufficient to capture the wrong done and to right this to the descendants of American slaves.
Slavery was morally wrong, and this was widely recognized during slavery in the US. Amends in the form of restitution are due to the descendants of slaves in America. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that this restitution is a political claim, not a legal claim. To help frame this political claim, an estimate of the size and a partial package of reparations exposes the benefits that Whites have reaped from the Black community. The three most salient components of slavery calculated by economists can also help direct the policy for distributing restitution. For instance, lost wages, as is done commonly today, should be paid directly as cash payments, while damages associated with assets could be directed towards opportunities for assets building particularly in home ownership.
It is also important to note that the US has paid reparations to American Indians and to those American Japanese that were interned during WW II on the West Coast. Germany paid reparations to both survivors and non-survivors of Jews by giving direct compensation to survivors and establishing a fund that helped establish the Jewish State of Israel. Reparations acknowledge a wrong-doing. In the case of American slavery, there was a wrong doing, but more importantly slavery entailed a benefit to slave holders and the building of America and its success as a colony and country that rests on the backs of slaves. As such, it is not reparations that is called for, but restitution to account for the lack of paying for the labor of Africans that were brought by ships to the Americas, the ensuing value of chattel slavery and the denial of access to land with its concurrent sharecropper system that needs to be addressed. The arguments that it was “so long ago” and that is was “legal” simply do not acknowledge the benefits Whites reaped from this particular system of exploitation.
The above analysis only shows the scale of benefits in economic terms for Whites, for the period up until the early 20th century. This is an important period for the economic development of the US and in many ways established the US as the preeminent economic powerhouse it is today. Investing a few Trillion dollars in restitution into the African American community today entails a huge benefit to the US economy as a whole and should be welcomed at this particular juncture.
Sibylle Scholz holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana and currently works as a forensics economist.
Chrissi Jackson is a writer, activist and co-founder of the Truth Telling Project.
Michael Kessler, Ph.D. for an early review
NAFE International Meeting, Evian Le Bains, France, May 2019, Presentation
The idea of economic amends for past injustices and persistent disparities is getting renewed attention. Here are some formulas for achieving the aim.
If you’re surprised that the issue of reparations for black Americans has taken so long to resolve, blame the president. President Andrew Johnson.
As the Civil War wound down in 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman made the promise that would come to be known as “40 acres and a mule” — redistributing a huge tract of Atlantic coastline to black Americans recently freed from bondage. President Abraham Lincoln and Congress gave their approval, and soon 40,000 freedmen in the South had started to plant and build.
Within months of Lincoln’s assassination, though, President Johnson rescinded the order and returned the land to its former owners. Congress made another attempt at compensation, but Johnson vetoed it.
Now, in the early phase of the 2020 presidential campaign, the question of compensating black Americans for suffering under slavery and other forms of racial injustice has resurfaced. The current effort focuses on a congressional bill that would commission a study on reparations, a version of legislation first introduced in 1989. Several Democratic presidential hopefuls have declared their support, including Senators Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
If this latest revival has excited supporters, it has worried some party moderates who fear that such an effort would alienate many voters. Polls have shown a big deficit in popular support. While a majority of black Americans in a 2016 Marist poll supported reparations, whites rejected it by an overwhelming margin.
SLaThe reparations issue raises profound moral, social and political considerations. Still, the economic nuts and bolts of such a program have gotten scant public attention: Who would be paid? How much? Where would the money come from?
Through the decades, a handful of scholars have taken a shot at creating a road map. Here’s what has to be reckoned with.
What’s the economic rationale?
When James Forman, a civil rights pioneer who later served briefly as the Black Panther Party’s foreign minister, demanded $500 million in reparations in his 1969 Black Manifesto, he grounded his argument in an indisputable fact: Unpaid slave labor helped build the American economy, creating vast wealth that African-Americans were barred from sharing.
The manifesto called for white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues to pay for projects like a black university and a Southern land bank. “We have helped to build the most industrial country in the world,” it declared, at the same time that “racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor.”
Another civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin, responded, “If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.”
The question of reparations, however, extends far beyond the roughly four million people who were enslaved when the Civil War started, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in an influential essay published in The Atlantic in 2014. Legalized discrimination and state-sanctioned brutality, murder, dispossession and disenfranchisement continued long after the war ended. That history profoundly handicapped black Americans’ ability to create and accumulate wealth as well as to gain access to jobs, housing, education and health care.
For every dollar a typical white household holds, a black one has 10 cents. It is this cumulative effect that justifies the payment of reparations to descendants of slaves long dead, supporters say.
“Equality is not likely to be obtained without some form of reparations,” David H. Swinton, an economist and former president of Benedict College, wrote in the 1990 collection “The Wealth of Races.”
Students at Georgetown University voted on Thursday to increase their tuition to benefit descendants of the 272 enslaved Africans that the Jesuits who ran the school sold nearly two centuries ago to secure its financial future.
The fund they voted to create would represent the first instance of reparations for slavery by a prominent American organization.
The proposal passed with two-thirds of the vote, but the student-led referendum was nonbinding, and the university’s board of directors must approve the measure before it can take effect.
“We value the engagement of our students and appreciate that they are making their voices heard and contributing to an important national conversation,” Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs, said in a statement on Thursday.
The undergraduate student body voted to add a new fee of $27.20 per student per semester to their tuition bill, with the proceeds devoted to supporting education and health care programs in Louisiana and Maryland, where many of 4,000 known living descendants of the 272 enslaved people now reside.
A 2016 article in The New York Times described the 1838 sale by what was then Georgetown College, the premier Catholic institution of higher learning in America at the time.
The college relied on Jesuit-owned plantations in Maryland that were no longer producing a reliable income to support it, so the Jesuit priests who founded and ran Georgetown decided to raise cash by selling virtually all its slaves, receiving the equivalent of about $3.3 million in today’s money.
“The school wouldn’t be here without them,” said Shepard Thomas, a junior from New Orleans who is part of the campus group, Students for the GU272, that worked to hold the referendum. Mr. Thomas, a psychology major, is descended from slaves who were part of the 1838 sale.
“Students here always talk about changing the world after they graduate,” he said. “Why not change the world when you’re here?”
Mr. Thomas said the amount of the fee, $27.20, was chosen to evoke the number of people sold but not be too onerous for students. Tuition and fees for a full-time student per semester is $27,720.00.
Georgetown University agreed in 2016 to give admissions preference to descendants of the 272 slaves; Mr. Thomas was one of the first to be admitted under the policy. The school also formally apologized for its role in slavery, and has renamed two buildings on its campus to acknowledge the lives of slaves; one is now named for Isaac Hawkins, the first person listed in the 1838 sale.
The university has about 7,000 undergraduates, so the fee would raise about $380,000 a year for the fund.
“It makes me feel happy that we, as students, decided to set a precedent for the betterment of people’s lives,” Mr. Thomas said.
As this presidential campaign season gets under way, the racial wealth gap is getting a fair amount of attention. African-Americans typically have about one-tenth the wealth of whites. Several presidential hopefuls such as former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro as well as Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have supported the idea of reparations for the descendants of slaves to rectify this massive inequality born out of an unspeakable historic injustice.
A new paper from researchers at the Cleveland Federal Reserve now argues that almost all of the wealth gap between African-Americans and whites is driven by the racial income gap – African-Americans earning about half of what whites earn. One of the main findings of the paper rests on hypothetical scenario that sets African-Americans’ earnings equal to that of whites from 1962 to the present and finds that African-Americans would have had 90% of the wealth of white by 2007. The paper concludes by arguing that addressing the racial wealth gap would require focusing on fixing the racial income gap.
The single focus on income as the driver of racial wealth inequality rests on a model that strips away all of the systematic biases that result in lower incomes for African-Americans. Many of these directly relate to the racial wealth gap and the policy biases that favor whites. After all, income builds wealth, but wealth also generates future incomes and systematic obstacles in building enough wealth hold back African-Americans from getting a fair shot at equal pay. Focusing then only on income ignores the real importance of enacting policies that can quickly close the racial wealth gap, such as reparations.
Earning the same money as whites then requires African-Americans to have more wealth to begin with than is currently the case, so that they can actually catch up to whites. After all, current earnings in no small part depend on people’s past opportunities, afforded to them by their families’ wealth. These include, but are not limited to the quality of neighborhoods, schools and colleges. More wealth will allow people to move to better schools, to send their children to better schools, and to support their college education. Many African-Americans do not have these choices because of a lack of wealth. They then cannot gain the income that would give them and their children the same opportunities as whites have.
Additional policy interventions need to occur to make sure that when African-Americans have the same amount of income, they can also build the same amount of wealth as whites. The evidence shows that at comparable income and education levels, for instance, African-Americans have systematically much less wealth than whites. Their incomes often don’t translate into the same amount of wealth because they face additional obstacles such as housing and mortgage market discrimination, resulting in residential segregation and fewer economic educational and labor market opportunities.
The link between higher earnings and more wealth needs to be the same for African-Americans as for whites and that means eliminating systematic biases in housing, mortgage, credit, labor markets and education to begin with. For instance, even when African-Americans enjoy the same opportunities at an education, they often face systematic obstacles in the labor market, which means lower earnings and fewer benefits. A college education for African-Americans still goes along with lower earnings, more unemployment and less wealth than is the case for whites. Systematic obstacles such as outright discrimination, mass incarceration, occupational steering and residential segregation cost African-Americans income right now. Several of these obstacles can be overcome with more wealth that would allow people to move to safer, more diverse neighborhoods, to access similar education opportunities, among other changes.
Julia Leakes yearned to be reunited with her family. In 1853, her two sisters showed up for sale along with her thirteen nieces and nephews in Lawrence County, Mississippi. Julia used all the political capital an enslaved woman could muster to negotiate the sale of her loved ones to her owner, Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas’s semi-literate white plantation manager told him “[y]our negros begs for you to b[u]y them.” Despite assurances that this would “be a good arrangement,” Douglas refused to shuffle any of his 140+ slaves to reunite this separated slave family. Instead, Julia’s siblings, nieces, and nephews were put on the auction block where they vanished from the historical record.1
Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse for Julia. By 1859, she had a 1 in 3 chance of being worked to death under Douglas’s new overseer in Washington County, Mississippi. Douglas’s mistreatment of his slaves became notorious. According to one report, slaves on the Douglas plantation were kept “not half fed and clothed.”2 In another, Dr. Dan Brainard from Rush Medical College stated that Douglas’s slaves were subjected to “inhuman and disgraceful treatment” deemed so abhorrent that even other slaveholders in Mississippi branded Douglas “a disgrace to all slave-holders and the system that they support.”3
When we began this project, we assumed that the University of Chicago was a postemancipation institution. However, as the University of Chicago historian and Dean of its College John Boyer has shown, the deep ties between the university’s original Bronzeville campus and its current Hyde Park campus constitute a rich “inheritance” and give the university what he calls “a plausible genealogy as a pre-Civil War institution.” Continuities between the two campuses can be found almost everywhere among its trustees, faculty members, student alumni, donor networks, intellectual culture, institutional memory, distinctive architecture, library books, and, of course, the University of Chicago’s name itself. The two campuses would undoubtedly be deemed inseparable alter egos of one another. Boyer convincingly makes this case. What he seems to have missed, however, was that this pre-Civil War founding also came with a founding slaveholder who endures to this day—haunting the halls of the Hutchinson Commons.
Due in no small part to the pioneering work of the Brown University Committee of Slavery and Justice and historian Craig Steven Wilder, we now know that the University of Chicago is not alone. Many elite colleges and universities have deep roots in American slavery. Many also owe their large endowments to the financial legacy of the slave economy. These schools continue to leverage these endowments to develop and recruit talented faculty and students, build up the physical plant, and maintain their global reputations in the marketplace of ideas. Once a school comes to grips with its historical ties to chattel slavery, however, what is its next step?
Many may argue that Georgetown University might provide a useful but incomplete starting point for the University of Chicago. Both schools are located in urban environments with a large African American population. Both are endowed with lots of money. Under the aegis of the Georgetown Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation committee, Georgetown has also publicly wrestled with the question of what it owes the descendants of the enslaved. Georgetown has decided that there is not a statute of limitations on slavery, and that to reckon with the past they had to engage historically. The university opened up four tenure track lines in African American Studies, expanded the African American Studies Major, and has plans to establish a Research Center for Racial Justice. In addition to these measures, the university will offer the descendants of enslaved African Americans sold by its friars preferential treatment in admissions (similar to the boost that so-called legacy students already receive). It will also rename two campus buildings in honor of African Americans—one an educator and another one of the enslaved who made the university a financial possibility. But is this enough?
Perhaps, instead, the University of Chicago can find a way to look beyond Georgetown and what many have rightly criticized as its self-congratulatory, self-serving, and extremely limited program. Given the University of Chicago’s location on the city’s South Side it is uniquely situated to engage and address the legacy of slavery in a much different way. Chicago, like Washington D.C., has long been one of the meccas of Black life and culture. Establishing an African American Studies department should be a no-brainer. So, too, should be a concerted effort to recruit and develop faculty of color while vigorously recruiting and mentoring underrepresented students to attend the university. But this should happen anyway. It’s not reparations.
Maybe a further step would be to encourage the University to build more deeply upon the community-based efforts it is already engaging in. These include the UChicago Promise program, which provides enrichment programs for talented but under-served public school students. There is also the Chicago Public Schools Educators Award Scholarship—a full scholarship to attend the University for the children of educators in the Chicago Public Schools—which should be broadly promoted and expanded. The University’s Arts + Public Life programming, including the Washington Park Arts Block, the Black Cinema House, and the Stony Island Arts Bank (led by the indefatigable Theaster Gates) should all continue to invite local residents to engage in their programming. But, again, this is already happening as it should.
Perhaps we’ve gotten reparations entirely backwards. Here we must return to Julie and the enslaved peoples of the Douglas plantation. Any program of reparations must begin with them and their descendants. Reparations that flow back to the university itself either in the form of goodwill or an improved campus experience are not reparations. Diversity initiatives, black studies programs, and slick PR campaigns celebrating the university’s benevolence function primarily to enrich the university while compelling black students and faculty members to labor once more for the institution that owes their ancestors money.
This cannot be a question of what the university will do for black communities. It must be a function of what black communities demand as payment to forgive an unforgivable debt. Black people do not need a seat at the university’s reparations table. They need to own that table and have full control over how reparations are structured.
As more details of the university’s participation in slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination post-1967 are documented, the current residents and community organizations of the South Side of Chicago must lead the way—not be told where to sit. This is part of a requisite cognitive shift that involves thinking beyond the legal framework of ‘damages,’ or the neoliberal ordering of private property rights, or the monstrosity of capitalism. We must imagine an entirely new model of human interactions, self-governance, and social organization. One that shuns hierarchies and fosters horizontalism. If done correctly, reparations can lead the way to a fresh re-conceptualization of politics—not based in crude self-interest but justice and even love.
Reparations promise us a monumental re-birthing of America. Like most births, this one will be painful. But the practice of reparations must continue until the world that slavery built is rolled up and a new order spread out in its place. Until then, the University of Chicago must begin all of its conversations with the knowledge that it is party to a horrific crime that can never be fully rectified. But still it must try. And through that trying it must embrace an entirely new mission—one that centers slavery, the lives of the enslaved, and their descendants.
This piece was originally posted at the Black Perspectives blog, published by the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).
A step-by-step guide to paying the descendants of enslaved Africans.
Let’s say you’re driving down the street and someone rear-ends you. You get out of your car to assess the damage. The person who hit your vehicle gets out of his car, apologizes for the damage and calls his insurance company. Eventually, you receive a check for the harm done.
Now, let’s say that for years, if not generations, your family and families like yours have been damaged by your country’s political and economic system — by law and widespread practice, with the intent of benefiting families not like yours — then the checks for the harm done would be called reparations.
Beginning with more than two centuries of slavery, black Americans have been deliberately abused by their own nation. It’s time to pay restitution.
Black activists and intellectuals have been making that point with increasing volume over the last few years, turning what was an obscure thought problem into a political issue. The question of reparations has even entered into the Democratic primary, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)struggling to explain to black voters why he has built such a strong social justice platform on every issue but this one.
Sanders was put on the spot last month when a reporter asked him if he would support reparations as president. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, describing the likelihood of congressional passage as “nil” — as if those odds normally stopped him.
Every year since 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has introduced the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. As the name indicates, H.R. 40 does not require reparations. It simply calls for comprehensive research into the nature and financial impact of African enslavement as well as the ills inflicted on black people during the Jim Crow era. Then, remedies can be suggested.
Fifty-nine percent of black Americans think that the descendants of enslaved Africans deserve reparations, according to a June 2014 HuffPost/YouGov poll. Sixty-three percent of black folks support targeted education and job training programs for the descendants of slaves.
Most other Americans still aren’t listening.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most prominent voice now pushing reparations, laid out why black Americans deserve even more than repayment for slavery in a sweeping 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations.” The exploitation didn’t stop with the Emancipation Proclamation, so any restitution must reckon with the discrimination that followed and deal with the living victims of these ills.
If not even an avowed socialist can be bothered to grapple with reparations, if the question really is that far beyond the pale, if Bernie Sanders truly believes that victims of the Tulsa pogrom deserved nothing, that the victims of contract lending deserve nothing, that the victims of debt peonage deserve nothing, that that political plunder of black communities entitle them to nothing, if this is the candidate of the radical left — then expect white supremacy in America to endure well beyond our lifetimes and lifetimes of our children.
Let’s change that — let’s bother to have the hard but necessary discussion of what black Americans are owed for what was taken from them. If reparations ever come, what would they look like?
1. Let’s Figure Out Who Deserves Reparations And Why
Simply put, reparations are due to the millions of black Americans whose families have endured generations of discrimination in the United States. Most black Americans count among their ancestorspeople who endured chattel slavery, the ultimate denial of an individual’s humanity.
William Darity, a public policy professor at Duke University who has studied reparations extensively, proposes two specific requirements for eligibility to receive a payout. First, at least 10 years before the onset of a reparations program, an individual must have self-identified on a census form or other formal document as black, African-American, colored or Negro. Second, each individual must provide proof of an ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S.
Why does this huge group of Americans deserve restitution? Because starting with slavery, the damage done was institutionalized and inescapable. Darity has created a “Bill of Particulars,” including such specific grievances as:
The extended history of government-sanctioned segregation and other forms of racial oppression in the Jim Crow era
Post-WWII public policies that were designed to provide upward mobility for Americans but in practice did not include black people (such as the GI Bill)
Redlining, which made home ownership a possibility for white people while shutting out black folks
Ongoing discrimination against and associated denigration of black lives
Eric J. Miller, a professor at Loyola Law School, said the case for reparations starts with an honest accounting of the racism that black people have experienced. “Part of our history is our grandparents participating in these acts of terrible violence [against black people],” he said. “But people don’t want to acknowledge the horror of what they engaged in.”
White America built its wealth on those generations of legal and physical violence — a fact most white people today would rather not dwell on.
“People don’t want to believe that they got their gains in an ill manner,” Miller said. “The cognitive dissonance of learning that your property is got and preserved on the back of the misery of others is not an incredibly nice thing to live with. So people would rather discount it.”
But when the harm is great enough, it’s not enough to say you’re sorry and try to fix problems going forward. Germany made an effort to repay the Jews for the horrors of the Holocaust. Japanese-Americans were repaid for suffering in internment camps. Black Americans deserve no less.
This leads us to our next step.
2. So How Much Are We Talking About, Exactly?
No one really knows. (That’s part of the reason Rep. Conyers wants a commission.) But there are some numbers out there.
A 1990 study by Richard Sutch and Roger Ransom, professors at the University of California, Riverside, estimated that industries fueled by slave labor, like cotton and tobacco, made profits of $3.4 billion (in 1983 dollars) between 1806 and 1860. Darity has estimated that if you throw in an annual interest rate of 5 percent, that number jumps to $9.12 billion (in 2008 dollars).
Larry Neal, an economist at the University of Illinois, came up with an even higher number. His studies concluded that $1.4 trillion (in 1983 dollars) was owed to the descendants of enslaved Africans based on the compensation their ancestors did not receive for their labor between 1620 and 1840. With interest, that amounts to $6.4 trillion in 2014, according to The New Republic.
None of these numbers account for the physical and sexual violence inflicted upon enslaved Africans.
The figures mentioned also don’t include compensation for housing segregation and other forms of racial discrimination in the years since slavery ended. Nor do they factor in the extent to which American industries have profited — and continue to profit — from exploiting low-income workers, many of whom are black.
How do we measure those kinds of losses — the chance at upward economic mobility that was stolen from millions? One way is to compare property values between majority-black neighborhoods that were redlined and white neighborhoods that were not — or property values within a single neighborhood before and after redlining.
Another way is to gauge lost educational opportunities. Good public schools are usually found in majority-white suburbs where people pay higher property taxes. Poorly performing schools are found more often in economically disenfranchised areas with larger black populations.
Bottom line: reparations are going to cost a lot of money. But America is a wealthy nation that can afford to pay for its misdeeds. For perspective, consider that in fiscal year 2014, the U.S. government spent $3.5 trillion, which is only 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product of about $17.5 trillion.
3. Now, How Would This Money Be Paid Out?
Darity suggests that financial payouts be divided between individual recipients and a variety of endowments set up to develop the economic strength of the black community. His model is inspired by Germany’s restitution payments both to victims of the Holocaust and to Israel.
The advantage of individual payouts, Miller notes, is that they maximize autonomy. But much of that money would land back in the white-dominated economy and “the one percent would become one percentier,” he said.
Hence the value of using a portion of reparation funds to create programs geared toward aiding black people in combating the damage of racism.
“One could think of Black America as being a community that could benefit from development investments,” Darity said. “So you could have a trust fund that was set up to finance higher education, [another] to create greater opportunities for opening one’s own business, and so forth.”
Darity envisions the U.S. government establishing and overseeing these programs. Although it might seem counter-intuitive to give this power to the very institution that committed so much discrimination against black people, the professor said the government should be heavily involved precisely because of that history.
“The U.S. government is the responsible party because of the entire legal apparatus that supported both slavery and, subsequently, Jim Crow and continues to permit ongoing discrimination,” he said.
Miller emphasizes that the reparations-funded programs must be fully accessible to and controlled by members of the black community.
“Unless institutions exist that are controlled by and accountable to the community, then the community will always be dominated, or prone to domination, by others,” he said.
4. But Will This Ever Happen?
Congress hasn’t even managed to pass H.R. 40. And that’s really no surprise since most Americans are not pushing their lawmakers to do anything on this issue.
Only 6 percent of white Americans support cash payments to the descendants of enslaved Africans, according to that HuffPost/YouGov poll. Only 19 percent favor reparations in the form of education and jobs programs, while 50 percent of whites don’t even believe that slavery is one of the reasons why black Americans have lower levels of wealth.
They’re wrong. “The connection between slavery and the pillars of American society are tight. There are no pillars of American society without slavery,” Miller said. “You might think about that even literally. The columns of the White House and the Congress were built by slave labor.”
To deflect discussing why reparations are needed, some people request a developed strategy for reparations or a detailed legislative proposal before they’ll contemplate the issue. The suggestion, in itself, fits into a tired line of thinking that victims of injustice must explain themselves fully — and convincingly — to the system that harmed them before any recognition is provided.
“These demands always struck me as akin to demanding a payment plan for something one has neither decided one needs nor is willing to purchase,” Coates wrote. As he has tirelesslyreiterated, we must start with a robust discussion on why reparations are owed to black Americans.
If anything, the expansive U.S. history of anti-black racism is the deterrent — but letting that deter us today is itself anti-black.
This returns us to the criticism of Sanders. The symbolism of specifically calling for reparations matters. A white presidential candidate who vows only to fight police violence and other modern ills affecting black Americans is essentially urging that we put a bandage on past injustices without true reconciliation.
If we don’t look back and reckon with what has been done, there is no moving forward.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
— john locke, “second treatise”
By our unpaid labor and suffering, we have earned the right to the soil, many times over and over, and now we are determined to have it.
— anonymous, 1861
I. “So That’s Just One Of My Losses”
Clyde ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state. “You and I know what’s the best way to keep the nigger from voting,” blustered Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi senator and a proud Klansman. “You do it the night before the election.”
The state’s regime partnered robbery of the franchise with robbery of the purse. Many of Mississippi’s black farmers lived in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants. Tools and necessities were advanced against the return on the crop, which was determined by the employer. When farmers were deemed to be in debt—and they often were—the negative balance was then carried over to the next season. A man or woman who protested this arrangement did so at the risk of grave injury or death. Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system.Well into the 20th century, black people spoke of their flight from Mississippi in much the same manner as their runagate ancestors had. In her 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of Eddie Earvin, a spinach picker who fled Mississippi in 1963, after being made to work at gunpoint. “You didn’t talk about it or tell nobody,” Earvin said. “You had to sneak away.”
When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.
This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”Clyde Ross was a smart child. His teacher thought he should attend a more challenging school. There was very little support for educating black people in Mississippi. But Julius Rosenwald, a part owner of Sears, Roebuck, had begun an ambitious effort to build schools for black children throughout the South. Ross’s teacher believed he should attend the local Rosenwald school. It was too far for Ross to walk and get back in time to work in the fields. Local white children had a school bus. Clyde Ross did not, and thus lost the chance to better his education.Then, when Ross was 10 years old, a group of white men demanded his only childhood possession—the horse with the red coat. “You can’t have this horse. We want it,” one of the white men said. They gave Ross’s father $17.
“I did everything for that horse,” Ross told me. “Everything. And they took him. Put him on the racetrack. I never did know what happened to him after that, but I know they didn’t bring him back. So that’s just one of my losses.”
The losses mounted. As sharecroppers, the Ross family saw their wages treated as the landlord’s slush fund. Landowners were supposed to split the profits from the cotton fields with sharecroppers. But bales would often disappear during the count, or the split might be altered on a whim. If cotton was selling for 50 cents a pound, the Ross family might get 15 cents, or only five. One year Ross’s mother promised to buy him a $7 suit for a summer program at their church. She ordered the suit by mail. But that year Ross’s family was paid only five cents a pound for cotton. The mailman arrived with the suit. The Rosses could not pay. The suit was sent back. Clyde Ross did not go to the church program.
It was in these early years that Ross began to understand himself as an American—he did not live under the blind decree of justice, but under the heel of a regime that elevated armed robbery to a governing principle. He thought about fighting. “Just be quiet,” his father told him. “Because they’ll come and kill us all.”
Clyde Ross grew. He was drafted into the Army. The draft officials offered him an exemption if he stayed home and worked. He preferred to take his chances with war. He was stationed in California. He found that he could go into stores without being bothered. He could walk the streets without being harassed. He could go into a restaurant and receive service.Ross was shipped off to Guam. He fought in World War II to save the world from tyranny. But when he returned to Clarksdale, he found that tyranny had followed him home. This was 1947, eight years before Mississippi lynched Emmett Till and tossed his broken body into the Tallahatchie River. The Great Migration, a mass exodus of 6 million African Americans that spanned most of the 20th century, was now in its second wave. The black pilgrims did not journey north simply seeking better wages and work, or bright lights and big adventures. They were fleeing the acquisitive warlords of the South. They were seeking the protection of the law.Clyde Ross was among them. He came to Chicago in 1947 and took a job as a taster at Campbell’s Soup. He made a stable wage. He married. He had children. His paycheck was his own. No Klansmen stripped him of the vote. When he walked down the street, he did not have to move because a white man was walking past. He did not have to take off his hat or avert his gaze. His journey from peonage to full citizenship seemed near-complete. Only one item was missing—a home, that final badge of entry into the sacred order of the American middle class of the Eisenhower years.
In 1961, Ross and his wife bought a house in North Lawndale, a bustling community on Chicago’s West Side. North Lawndale had long been a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, but a handful of middle-class African Americans had lived there starting in the ’40s. The community was anchored by the sprawling Sears, Roebuck headquarters. North Lawndale’s Jewish People’s Institute actively encouraged blacks to move into the neighborhood, seeking to make it a “pilot community for interracial living.” In the battle for integration then being fought around the country, North Lawndale seemed to offer promising terrain. But out in the tall grass, highwaymen, nefarious as any Clarksdale kleptocrat, were lying in wait.
Three months after Clyde Ross moved into his house, the boiler blew out. This would normally be a homeowner’s responsibility, but in fact, Ross was not really a homeowner. His payments were made to the seller, not the bank. And Ross had not signed a normal mortgage. He’d bought “on contract”: a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither. Ross had bought his house for $27,500. The seller, not the previous homeowner but a new kind of middleman, had bought it for only $12,000 six months before selling it to Ross. In a contract sale, the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, Ross would acquire no equity in the meantime. If he missed a single payment, he would immediately forfeit his $1,000 down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself.
The men who peddled contracts in North Lawndale would sell homes at inflated prices and then evict families who could not pay—taking their down payment and their monthly installments as profit. Then they’d bring in another black family, rinse, and repeat. “He loads them up with payments they can’t meet,” an office secretary told The Chicago Daily News of her boss, the speculator Lou Fushanis, in 1963. “Then he takes the property away from them. He’s sold some of the buildings three or four times.”Ross had tried to get a legitimate mortgage in another neighborhood, but was told by a loan officer that there was no financing available. The truth was that there was no financing for people like Clyde Ross. From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure, from “restrictive covenants” to bombings, to keep their neighborhoods segregated.Their efforts were buttressed by the federal government. In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for Clyde Ross. The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.
Explore Redlining in Chicago
“A government offering such bounty to builders and lenders could have required compliance with a nondiscrimination policy,” Charles Abrams, the urban-studies expert who helped create the New York City Housing Authority, wrote in 1955. “Instead, the FHA adopted a racial policy that could well have been culled from the Nuremberg laws.”
The devastating effects are cogently outlined by Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro in their 1995 book, Black Wealth/White Wealth:
Locked out of the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history, African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers: cut off from sources of new investment[,] their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.
In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport. “It was like people who like to go out and shoot lions in Africa. It was the same thrill,” a housing attorney told the historian Beryl Satter in her 2009 book, Family Properties. “The thrill of the chase and the kill.”
The kill was profitable. At the time of his death, Lou Fushanis owned more than 600 properties, many of them in North Lawndale, and his estate was estimated to be worth $3 million. He’d made much of this money by exploiting the frustrated hopes of black migrants like Clyde Ross. During this period, according to one estimate, 85 percent of all black home buyers who bought in Chicago bought on contract. “If anybody who is well established in this business in Chicago doesn’t earn $100,000 a year,” a contract seller told The Saturday Evening Post in 1962, “he is loafing.”
Contract sellers became rich. North Lawndale became a ghetto.Clyde Ross still lives there. He still owns his home. He is 91, and the emblems of survival are all around him—awards for service in his community, pictures of his children in cap and gown. But when I asked him about his home in North Lawndale, I heard only anarchy.“We were ashamed. We did not want anyone to know that we were that ignorant,” Ross told me. He was sitting at his dining-room table. His glasses were as thick as his Clarksdale drawl. “I’d come out of Mississippi where there was one mess, and come up here and got in another mess. So how dumb am I? I didn’t want anyone to know how dumb I was.
“When I found myself caught up in it, I said, ‘How? I just left this mess. I just left no laws. And no regard. And then I come here and get cheated wide open.’ I would probably want to do some harm to some people, you know, if I had been violent like some of us. I thought, ‘Man, I got caught up in this stuff. I can’t even take care of my kids.’ I didn’t have enough for my kids. You could fall through the cracks easy fighting these white people. And no law.”
But fight Clyde Ross did. In 1968 he joined the newly formed Contract Buyers League—a collection of black homeowners on Chicago’s South and West Sides, all of whom had been locked into the same system of predation. There was Howell Collins, whose contract called for him to pay $25,500 for a house that a speculator had bought for $14,500. There was Ruth Wells, who’d managed to pay out half her contract, expecting a mortgage, only to suddenly see an insurance bill materialize out of thin air—a requirement the seller had added without Wells’s knowledge. Contract sellers used every tool at their disposal to pilfer from their clients. They scared white residents into selling low. They lied about properties’ compliance with building codes, then left the buyer responsible when city inspectors arrived. They presented themselves as real-estate brokers, when in fact they were the owners. They guided their clients to lawyers who were in on the scheme.
The Contract Buyers League fought back. Members—who would eventually number more than 500—went out to the posh suburbs where the speculators lived and embarrassed them by knocking on their neighbors’ doors and informing them of the details of the contract-lending trade. They refused to pay their installments, instead holding monthly payments in an escrow account. Then they brought a suit against the contract sellers, accusing them of buying properties and reselling in such a manner “to reap from members of the Negro race large and unjust profits.”
Video: The Contract Buyers League
In return for the “deprivations of their rights and privileges under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments,” the league demanded “prayers for relief”—payback of all moneys paid on contracts and all moneys paid for structural improvement of properties, at 6 percent interest minus a “fair, non-discriminatory” rental price for time of occupation. Moreover, the league asked the court to adjudge that the defendants had “acted willfully and maliciously and that malice is the gist of this action.”Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer appealing to the government simply for equality. They were no longer fleeing in hopes of a better deal elsewhere. They were charging society with a crime against their community. They wanted the crime publicly ruled as such. They wanted the crime’s executors declared to be offensive to society. And they wanted restitution for the great injury brought upon them by said offenders. In 1968, Clyde Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer simply seeking the protection of the law. They were seeking reparations.
II. “A Difference of Kind, Not Degree”
According to the most-recent statistics, North Lawndale is now on the wrong end of virtually every socioeconomic indicator. In 1930 its population was 112,000. Today it is 36,000. The halcyon talk of “interracial living” is dead. The neighborhood is 92 percent black. Its homicide rate is 45 per 100,000—triple the rate of the city as a whole. The infant-mortality rate is 14 per 1,000—more than twice the national average. Forty-three percent of the people in North Lawndale live below the poverty line—double Chicago’s overall rate. Forty-five percent of all households are on food stamps—nearly three times the rate of the city at large. Sears, Roebuck left the neighborhood in 1987, taking 1,800 jobs with it. Kids in North Lawndale need not be confused about their prospects: Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center sits directly adjacent to the neighborhood.
North Lawndale is an extreme portrait of the trends that ail black Chicago. Such is the magnitude of these ailments that it can be said that blacks and whites do not inhabit the same city. The average per capita income of Chicago’s white neighborhoods is almost three times that of its black neighborhoods. When the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson examined incarceration rates in Chicago in his 2012 book, Great American City, he found that a black neighborhood with one of the highest incarceration rates (West Garfield Park) had a rate more than 40 times as high as the white neighborhood with the highest rate (Clearing). “This is a staggering differential, even for community-level comparisons,” Sampson writes. “A difference of kind, not degree.”In other words, Chicago’s impoverished black neighborhoods—characterized by high unemployment and households headed by single parents—are not simply poor; they are “ecologically distinct.” This “is not simply the same thing as low economic status,” writes Sampson. “In this pattern Chicago is not alone.”
The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of whites only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows—and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere. The income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, studied children born from 1955 through 1970 and found that 4 percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed. And whereas whites born into affluent neighborhoods tended to remain in affluent neighborhoods, blacks tended to fall out of them.This is not surprising. Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do. Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous.And just as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood. Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Sharkey’s research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. “Blacks and whites inhabit such different neighborhoods,” Sharkey writes, “that it is not possible to compare the economic outcomes of black and white children.”
A national real-estate association advised not to sell to “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education.”
Even seeming evidence of progress withers under harsh light. In 2012, the Manhattan Institute cheerily noted that segregation had declined since the 1960s. And yet African Americans still remained—by far—the most segregated ethnic group in the country.
With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage. An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating.One thread of thinking in the African American community holds that these depressing numbers partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior. (In 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, responding to violence among young black males, put the blame on the family: “Too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of, and then we end up dealing with your children.” Nutter turned to those presumably fatherless babies: “Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.”) The thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance.
The Contract Buyers League’s suit brought by Clyde Ross and his allies took direct aim at this inheritance. The suit was rooted in Chicago’s long history of segregation, which had created two housing markets—one legitimate and backed by the government, the other lawless and patrolled by predators. The suit dragged on until 1976, when the league lost a jury trial. Securing the equal protection of the law proved hard; securing reparations proved impossible. If there were any doubts about the mood of the jury, the foreman removed them by saying, when asked about the verdict, that he hoped it would help end “the mess Earl Warren made with Brown v. Board of Education and all that nonsense.”
The Supreme Court seems to share that sentiment. The past two decades have witnessed a rollback of the progressive legislation of the 1960s. Liberals have found themselves on the defensive. In 2008, when Barack Obama was a candidate for president, he was asked whether his daughters—Malia and Sasha—should benefit from affirmative action. He answered in the negative.
The exchange rested upon an erroneous comparison of the average American white family and the exceptional first family. In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much. Malia and Sasha Obama enjoy privileges beyond the average white child’s dreams. But that comparison is incomplete. The more telling question is how they compare with Jenna and Barbara Bush—the products of many generations of privilege, not just one. Whatever the Obama children achieve, it will be evidence of their family’s singular perseverance, not of broad equality.
III. “We Inherit Our Ample Patrimony”
in 1783, the freedwoman Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations. Belinda had been born in modern-day Ghana. She was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. She endured the Middle Passage and 50 years of enslavement at the hands of Isaac Royall and his son. But the junior Royall, a British loyalist, fled the country during the Revolution. Belinda, now free after half a century of labor, beseeched the nascent Massachusetts legislature:
The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.
WHEREFORE, casting herself at your feet if your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of Virtue, and the just return of honest industry—she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the Estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her, and her more infirm daughter, from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their lives.
Belinda Royall was granted a pension of 15 pounds and 12 shillings, to be paid out of the estate of Isaac Royall—one of the earliest successful attempts to petition for reparations. At the time, black people in America had endured more than 150 years of enslavement, and the idea that they might be owed something in return was, if not the national consensus, at least not outrageous.
“A heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us,” wrote the Quaker John Woolman in 1769, “and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them.”
As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected. Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make “membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.” In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. “The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,” wrote Pleasants, “would be an acceptable offering to him who ‘Rules in the kingdom of men.’ ”
Edward Coles, a protégé of Thomas Jefferson who became a slaveholder through inheritance, took many of his slaves north and granted them a plot of land in Illinois. John Randolph, a cousin of Jefferson’s, willed that all his slaves be emancipated upon his death, and that all those older than 40 be given 10 acres of land. “I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom,” Randolph wrote, “heartily regretting that I have been the owner of one.”
In his book Forever Free, Eric Foner recounts the story of a disgruntled planter reprimanding a freedman loafing on the job:
Planter: “You lazy nigger, I am losing a whole day’s labor by you.”
Freedman: “Massa, how many days’ labor have I lost by you?”
In the 20th century, the cause of reparations was taken up by a diverse cast that included the Confederate veteran Walter R. Vaughan, who believed that reparations would be a stimulus for the South; the black activist Callie House; black-nationalist leaders like “Queen Mother” Audley Moore; and the civil-rights activist James Forman. The movement coalesced in 1987 under an umbrella organization called the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (n’cobra). The NAACP endorsed reparations in 1993. Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School, has pursued reparations claims in court.
But while the people advocating reparations have changed over time, the response from the country has remained virtually the same. “They have been taught to labor,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1891. “They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.”Not exactly. Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”
A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.
“It’s because it’s black folks making the claim,” Nkechi Taifa, who helped found n’cobra, says. “People who talk about reparations are considered left lunatics. But all we are talking about is studying [reparations]. As John Conyers has said, we study everything. We study the water, the air. We can’t even study the issue? This bill does not authorize one red cent to anyone.”
That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?
One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.
Black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.
In 1909, President William Howard Taft told the country that “intelligent” white southerners were ready to see blacks as “useful members of the community.” A week later Joseph Gordon, a black man, was lynched outside Greenwood, Mississippi. The high point of the lynching era has passed. But the memories of those robbed of their lives still live on in the lingering effects. Indeed, in America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife. We believe white dominance to be a fact of the inert past, a delinquent debt that can be made to disappear if only we don’t look.
There has always been another way. “It is in vain to alledge, that our ancestorsbrought them hither, and not we,” Yale President Timothy Dwight said in 1810.
We inherit our ample patrimony with all its incumbrances; and are bound to pay the debts of our ancestors. This debt, particularly, we are bound to discharge: and, when the righteous Judge of the Universe comes to reckon with his servants, he will rigidly exact the payment at our hands. To give them liberty, and stop here, is to entail upon them a curse.
IV. “The Ills That Slavery Frees Us From”
America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary. “The men who came together to found the independent United States, dedicated to freedom and equality, either held slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did,” the historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote. “None of them felt entirely comfortable about the fact, but neither did they feel responsible for it. Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew the two were not unconnected.”
When enslaved Africans, plundered of their bodies, plundered of their families, and plundered of their labor, were brought to the colony of Virginia in 1619, they did not initially endure the naked racism that would engulf their progeny. Some of them were freed. Some of them intermarried. Still others escaped with the white indentured servants who had suffered as they had. Some even rebelled together, allying under Nathaniel Bacon to torch Jamestown in 1676.
One hundred years later, the idea of slaves and poor whites joining forces would shock the senses, but in the early days of the English colonies, the two groups had much in common. English visitors to Virginia found that its masters “abuse their servantes with intollerable oppression and hard usage.” White servants were flogged, tricked into serving beyond their contracts, and traded in much the same manner as slaves.This “hard usage” originated in a simple fact of the New World—land was boundless but cheap labor was limited. As life spans increased in the colony, the Virginia planters found in the enslaved Africans an even more efficient source of cheap labor. Whereas indentured servants were still legal subjects of the English crown and thus entitled to certain protections, African slaves entered the colonies as aliens. Exempted from the protections of the crown, they became early America’s indispensable working class—fit for maximum exploitation, capable of only minimal resistance.For the next 250 years, American law worked to reduce black people to a class of untouchables and raise all white men to the level of citizens. In 1650, Virginia mandated that “all persons except Negroes” were to carry arms. In 1664, Maryland mandated that any Englishwoman who married a slave must live as a slave of her husband’s master. In 1705, the Virginia assembly passed a law allowing for the dismemberment of unruly slaves—but forbidding masters from whipping “a Christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.” In that same law, the colony mandated that “all horses, cattle, and hogs, now belonging, or that hereafter shall belong to any slave” be seized and sold off by the local church, the profits used to support “the poor of the said parish.” At that time, there would have still been people alive who could remember blacks and whites joining to burn down Jamestown only 29 years before. But at the beginning of the 18th century, two primary classes were enshrined in America.
“The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” John C. Calhoun, South Carolina’s senior senator, declared on the Senate floor in 1848. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.”
In 1860, the majority of people living in South Carolina and Mississippi, almost half of those living in Georgia, and about one-third of all Southerners were on the wrong side of Calhoun’s line. The state with the largest number of enslaved Americans was Virginia, where in certain counties some 70 percent of all people labored in chains. Nearly one-fourth of all white Southerners owned slaves, and upon their backs the economic basis of America—and much of the Atlantic world—was erected. In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports. The web of this slave society extended north to the looms of New England, and across the Atlantic to Great Britain, where it powered a great economic transformation and altered the trajectory of world history. “Whoever says Industrial Revolution,” wrote the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, “says cotton.”
The wealth accorded America by slavery was not just in what the slaves pulled from the land but in the slaves themselves. “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” the Yale historian David W. Blight has noted. “Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy.” The sale of these slaves—“in whose bodies that money congealed,” writes Walter Johnson, a Harvard historian—generated even more ancillary wealth. Loans were taken out for purchase, to be repaid with interest. Insurance policies were drafted against the untimely death of a slave and the loss of potential profits. Slave sales were taxed and notarized. The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.
Beneath the cold numbers lay lives divided. “I had a constant dread that Mrs. Moore, her mistress, would be in want of money and sell my dear wife,” a freedman wrote, reflecting on his time in slavery. “We constantly dreaded a final separation. Our affection for each was very strong, and this made us always apprehensive of a cruel parting.”
Forced partings were common in the antebellum South. A slave in some parts of the region stood a 30 percent chance of being sold in his or her lifetime. Twenty-five percent of interstate trades destroyed a first marriage and half of them destroyed a nuclear family.
When the wife and children of Henry Brown, a slave in Richmond, Virginia, were to be sold away, Brown searched for a white master who might buy his wife and children to keep the family together. He failed:
The next day, I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five waggon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, “There’s my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye.” It was my eldest child! Soon the gang approached in which my wife was chained. I looked, and beheld her familiar face; but O, reader, that glance of agony! may God spare me ever again enduring the excruciating horror of that moment! She passed, and came near to where I stood. I seized hold of her hand, intending to bid her farewell; but words failed me; the gift of utterance had fled, and I remained speechless. I followed her for some distance, with her hand grasped in mine, as if to save her from her fate, but I could not speak, and I was obliged to turn away in silence.
In a time when telecommunications were primitive and blacks lacked freedom of movement, the parting of black families was a kind of murder. Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy—in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family. The destruction was not incidental to America’s rise; it facilitated that rise. By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy. The labor strife that seeded Bacon’s rebellion was suppressed. America’s indispensable working class existed as property beyond the realm of politics, leaving white Americans free to trumpet their love of freedom and democratic values. Assessing antebellum democracy in Virginia, a visitor from England observed that the state’s natives “can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves.”
V. The Quiet Plunder
the consequences of 250 years of enslavement, of war upon black families and black people, were profound. Like homeownership today, slave ownership was aspirational, attracting not just those who owned slaves but those who wished to. Much as homeowners today might discuss the addition of a patio or the painting of a living room, slaveholders traded tips on the best methods for breeding workers, exacting labor, and doling out punishment. Just as a homeowner today might subscribe to a magazine like This Old House, slaveholders had journals such as De Bow’s Review, which recommended the best practices for wringing profits from slaves. By the dawn of the Civil War, the enslavement of black America was thought to be so foundational to the country that those who sought to end it were branded heretics worthy of death. Imagine what would happen if a president today came out in favor of taking all American homes from their owners: the reaction might well be violent.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Radical Republicans attempted to reconstruct the country upon something resembling universal equality—but they were beaten back by a campaign of “Redemption,” led by White Liners, Red Shirts, and Klansmen bent on upholding a society “formed for the white, not for the black man.” A wave of terrorism roiled the South. In his massive history Reconstruction, Eric Foner recounts incidents of black people being attacked for not removing their hats; for refusing to hand over a whiskey flask; for disobeying church procedures; for “using insolent language”; for disputing labor contracts; for refusing to be “tied like a slave.” Sometimes the attacks were intended simply to “thin out the niggers a little.”
Terrorism carried the day. Federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877. The dream of Reconstruction died. For the next century, political violence was visited upon blacks wantonly, with special treatment meted out toward black people of ambition. Black schools and churches were burned to the ground. Black voters and the political candidates who attempted to rally them were intimidated, and some were murdered. At the end of World War I, black veterans returning to their homes were assaulted for daring to wear the American uniform. The demobilization of soldiers after the war, which put white and black veterans into competition for scarce jobs, produced the Red Summer of 1919: a succession of racist pogroms against dozens of cities ranging from Longview, Texas, to Chicago to Washington, D.C. Organized white violence against blacks continued into the 1920s—in 1921 a white mob leveled Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” and in 1923 another one razed the black town of Rosewood, Florida—and virtually no one was punished.
The work of mobs was a rabid and violent rendition of prejudices that extended even into the upper reaches of American government. The New Deal is today remembered as a model for what progressive government should do—cast a broad social safety net that protects the poor and the afflicted while building the middle class. When progressives wish to express their disappointment with Barack Obama, they point to the accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt. But these progressives rarely note that Roosevelt’s New Deal, much like the democracy that produced it, rested on the foundation of Jim Crow.“The Jim Crow South,” writes Ira Katznelson, a history and political-science professor at Columbia, “was the one collaborator America’s democracy could not do without.” The marks of that collaboration are all over the New Deal. The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net “a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.”The oft-celebrated G.I. Bill similarly failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country’s insistence on a racist housing policy. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with white officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks. The historian Kathleen J. Frydl observes in her 2009 book, The GI Bill, that so many blacks were disqualified from receiving Title III benefits “that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title.”
In Cold War America, homeownership was seen as a means of instilling patriotism, and as a civilizing and anti-radical force. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist,” claimed William Levitt, who pioneered the modern suburb with the development of the various Levittowns, his famous planned communities. “He has too much to do.”
But the Levittowns were, with Levitt’s willing acquiescence, segregated throughout their early years. Daisy and Bill Myers, the first black family to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania, were greeted with protests and a burning cross. A neighbor who opposed the family said that Bill Myers was “probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”
The neighbor had good reason to be afraid. Bill and Daisy Myers were from the other side of John C. Calhoun’s dual society. If they moved next door, housing policy almost guaranteed that their neighbors’ property values would decline.
Whereas shortly before the New Deal, a typical mortgage required a large down payment and full repayment within about 10 years, the creation of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1933 and then the Federal Housing Administration the following year allowed banks to offer loans requiring no more than 10 percent down, amortized over 20 to 30 years. “Without federal intervention in the housing market, massive suburbanization would have been impossible,” writes Thomas J. Sugrue, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “In 1930, only 30 percent of Americans owned their own homes; by 1960, more than 60 percent were home owners. Home ownership became an emblem of American citizenship.”
That emblem was not to be awarded to blacks. The American real-estate industry believed segregation to be a moral principle. As late as 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ code of ethics warned that “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.” A 1943 brochure specified that such potential undesirables might include madams, bootleggers, gangsters—and “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.”
The federal government concurred. It was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, not a private trade association, that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant—a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites. Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods.
“For perhaps the first time, the federal government embraced the discriminatory attitudes of the marketplace,” the historian Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in his 1985 book, Crabgrass Frontier, a history of suburbanization. “Previously, prejudices were personalized and individualized; FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy. Whole areas of cities were declared ineligible for loan guarantees.” Redlining was not officially outlawed until 1968, by the Fair Housing Act. By then the damage was done—and reports of redlining by banks have continued.
The federal government is premised on equal fealty from all its citizens, who in return are to receive equal treatment. But as late as the mid-20th century, this bargain was not granted to black people, who repeatedly paid a higher price for citizenship and received less in return. Plunder had been the essential feature of slavery, of the society described by Calhoun. But practically a full century after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the plunder—quiet, systemic, submerged—continued even amidst the aims and achievements of New Deal liberals.
VI. Making The Second Ghetto
today chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, a fact that reflects assiduous planning. In the effort to uphold white supremacy at every level down to the neighborhood, Chicago—a city founded by the black fur trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable—has long been a pioneer. The efforts began in earnest in 1917, when the Chicago Real Estate Board, horrified by the influx of southern blacks, lobbied to zone the entire city by race. But after the Supreme Court ruled against explicit racial zoning that year, the city was forced to pursue its agenda by more-discreet means.
Like the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration initially insisted on restrictive covenants, which helped bar blacks and other ethnic undesirables from receiving federally backed home loans. By the 1940s, Chicago led the nation in the use of these restrictive covenants, and about half of all residential neighborhoods in the city were effectively off-limits to blacks.
It is common today to become misty-eyed about the old black ghetto, where doctors and lawyers lived next door to meatpackers and steelworkers, who themselves lived next door to prostitutes and the unemployed. This segregationist nostalgia ignores the actual conditions endured by the people living there—vermin and arson, for instance—and ignores the fact that the old ghetto was premised on denying black people privileges enjoyed by white Americans.
In 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants, while permissible, were not enforceable by judicial action, Chicago had other weapons at the ready. The Illinois state legislature had already given Chicago’s city council the right to approve—and thus to veto—any public housing in the city’s wards. This came in handy in 1949, when a new federal housing act sent millions of tax dollars into Chicago and other cities around the country. Beginning in 1950, site selection for public housing proceeded entirely on the grounds of segregation. By the 1960s, the city had created with its vast housing projects what the historian Arnold R. Hirsch calls a “second ghetto,” one larger than the old Black Belt but just as impermeable. More than 98 percent of all the family public-housing units built in Chicago between 1950 and the mid‑1960s were built in all-black neighborhoods.
Governmental embrace of segregation was driven by the virulent racism of Chicago’s white citizens. White neighborhoods vulnerable to black encroachment formed block associations for the sole purpose of enforcing segregation. They lobbied fellow whites not to sell. They lobbied those blacks who did manage to buy to sell back. In 1949, a group of Englewood Catholics formed block associations intended to “keep up the neighborhood.” Translation: keep black people out. And when civic engagement was not enough, when government failed, when private banks could no longer hold the line, Chicago turned to an old tool in the American repertoire—racial violence. “The pattern of terrorism is easily discernible,” concluded a Chicago civic group in the 1940s. “It is at the seams of the black ghetto in all directions.” On July 1 and 2 of 1946, a mob of thousands assembled in Chicago’s Park Manor neighborhood, hoping to eject a black doctor who’d recently moved in. The mob pelted the house with rocks and set the garage on fire. The doctor moved away.
In 1947, after a few black veterans moved into the Fernwood section of Chicago, three nights of rioting broke out; gangs of whites yanked blacks off streetcars and beat them. Two years later, when a union meeting attended by blacks in Englewood triggered rumors that a home was being “sold to niggers,” blacks (and whites thought to be sympathetic to them) were beaten in the streets. In 1951, thousands of whites in Cicero, 20 minutes or so west of downtown Chicago, attacked an apartment building that housed a single black family, throwing bricks and firebombs through the windows and setting the apartment on fire. A Cook County grand jury declined to charge the rioters—and instead indicted the family’s NAACP attorney, the apartment’s white owner, and the owner’s attorney and rental agent, charging them with conspiring to lower property values. Two years after that, whites picketed and planted explosives in South Deering, about 30 minutes from downtown Chicago, to force blacks out.
When terrorism ultimately failed, white homeowners simply fled the neighborhood. The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors. For should any nonracist white families decide that integration might not be so bad as a matter of principle or practicality, they still had to contend with the hard facts of American housing policy: When the mid-20th-century white homeowner claimed that the presence of a Bill and Daisy Myers decreased his property value, he was not merely engaging in racist dogma—he was accurately observing the impact of federal policy on market prices. Redlining destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived.
VII. “A Lot Of People Fell By The Way”
speculators in north lawndale, and at the edge of the black ghettos, knew there was money to be made off white panic. They resorted to “block-busting”—spooking whites into selling cheap before the neighborhood became black. They would hire a black woman to walk up and down the street with a stroller. Or they’d hire someone to call a number in the neighborhood looking for “Johnny Mae.” Then they’d cajole whites into selling at low prices, informing them that the more blacks who moved in, the more the value of their homes would decline, so better to sell now. With these white-fled homes in hand, speculators then turned to the masses of black people who had streamed northward as part of the Great Migration, or who were desperate to escape the ghettos: the speculators would take the houses they’d just bought cheap through block-busting and sell them to blacks on contract.
To keep up with his payments and keep his heat on, Clyde Ross took a second job at the post office and then a third job delivering pizza. His wife took a job working at Marshall Field. He had to take some of his children out of private school. He was not able to be at home to supervise his children or help them with their homework. Money and time that Ross wanted to give his children went instead to enrich white speculators.
“The problem was the money,” Ross told me. “Without the money, you can’t move. You can’t educate your kids. You can’t give them the right kind of food. Can’t make the house look good. They think this neighborhood is where they supposed to be. It changes their outlook. My kids were going to the best schools in this neighborhood, and I couldn’t keep them in there.”
Mattie Lewis came to Chicago from her native Alabama in the mid-’40s, when she was 21, persuaded by a friend who told her she could get a job as a hairdresser. Instead she was hired by Western Electric, where she worked for 41 years. I met Lewis in the home of her neighbor Ethel Weatherspoon. Both had owned homes in North Lawndale for more than 50 years. Both had bought their houses on contract. Both had been active with Clyde Ross in the Contract Buyers League’s effort to garner restitution from contract sellers who’d operated in North Lawndale, banks who’d backed the scheme, and even the Federal Housing Administration. We were joined by Jack Macnamara, who’d been an organizing force in the Contract Buyers League when it was founded, in 1968. Our gathering had the feel of a reunion, because the writer James Alan McPherson had profiled the Contract Buyers League for The Atlantic back in 1972.
Weatherspoon bought her home in 1957. “Most of the whites started moving out,” she told me. “‘The blacks are coming. The blacks are coming.’ They actually said that. They had signs up: don’t sell to blacks.”Before moving to North Lawndale, Lewis and her husband tried moving to Cicero after seeing a house advertised for sale there. “Sorry, I just sold it today,” the Realtor told Lewis’s husband. “I told him, ‘You know they don’t want you in Cicero,’ ” Lewis recalls. “ ‘They ain’t going to let nobody black in Cicero.’ ”In 1958, the couple bought a home in North Lawndale on contract. They were not blind to the unfairness. But Lewis, born in the teeth of Jim Crow, considered American piracy—black people keep on making it, white people keep on taking it—a fact of nature. “All I wanted was a house. And that was the only way I could get it. They weren’t giving black people loans at that time,” she said. “We thought, ‘This is the way it is. We going to do it till we die, and they ain’t never going to accept us. That’s just the way it is.’
“The only way you were going to buy a home was to do it the way they wanted,” she continued. “And I was determined to get me a house. If everybody else can have one, I want one too. I had worked for white people in the South. And I saw how these white people were living in the North and I thought, ‘One day I’m going to live just like them.’ I wanted cabinets and all these things these other people have.”
White flight was not an accident—it was a triumph of racist social engineering.
Whenever she visited white co-workers at their homes, she saw the difference. “I could see we were just getting ripped off,” she said. “I would see things and I would say, ‘I’d like to do this at my house.’ And they would say, ‘Do it,’ but I would think, ‘I can’t, because it costs us so much more.’ ”
I asked Lewis and Weatherspoon how they kept up on payments.
“You paid it and kept working,” Lewis said of the contract. “When that payment came up, you knew you had to pay it.”
“You cut down on the light bill. Cut down on your food bill,” Weatherspoon interjected.
“You cut down on things for your child, that was the main thing,” said Lewis. “My oldest wanted to be an artist and my other wanted to be a dancer and my other wanted to take music.”
Lewis and Weatherspoon, like Ross, were able to keep their homes. The suit did not win them any remuneration. But it forced contract sellers to the table, where they allowed some members of the Contract Buyers League to move into regular mortgages or simply take over their houses outright. By then they’d been bilked for thousands. In talking with Lewis and Weatherspoon, I was seeing only part of the picture—the tiny minority who’d managed to hold on to their homes. But for all our exceptional ones, for every Barack and Michelle Obama, for every Ethel Weatherspoon or Clyde Ross, for every black survivor, there are so many thousands gone.
“A lot of people fell by the way,” Lewis told me. “One woman asked me if I would keep all her china. She said, ‘They ain’t going to set you out.’ ”
VIII. “Negro Poverty is not White Poverty”
on a recent spring afternoon in North Lawndale, I visited Billy Lamar Brooks Sr. Brooks has been an activist since his youth in the Black Panther Party, when he aided the Contract Buyers League. I met him in his office at the Better Boys Foundation, a staple of North Lawndale whose mission is to direct local kids off the streets and into jobs and college. Brooks’s work is personal. On June 14, 1991, his 19-year-old son, Billy Jr., was shot and killed. “These guys tried to stick him up,” Brooks told me. “I suspect he could have been involved in some things … He’s always on my mind. Every day.”
Brooks was not raised in the streets, though in such a neighborhood it is impossible to avoid the influence. “I was in church three or four times a week. That’s where the girls were,” he said, laughing. “The stark reality is still there. There’s no shield from life. You got to go to school. I lived here. I went to Marshall High School. Over here were the Egyptian Cobras. Over there were the Vice Lords.”
Brooks has since moved away from Chicago’s West Side. But he is still working in North Lawndale. If “you got a nice house, you live in a nice neighborhood, then you are less prone to violence, because your space is not deprived,” Brooks said. “You got a security point. You don’t need no protection.” But if “you grow up in a place like this, housing sucks. When they tore down the projects here, they left the high-rises and came to the neighborhood with that gang mentality. You don’t have nothing, so you going to take something, even if it’s not real. You don’t have no street, but in your mind it’s yours.”
Video: The Guardian of North Lawndale
We walked over to a window behind his desk. A group of young black men were hanging out in front of a giant mural memorializing two black men: in lovin memory quentin aka “q,” july 18, 1974 ❤ march 2, 2012. The name and face of the other man had been spray-painted over by a rival group. The men drank beer. Occasionally a car would cruise past, slow to a crawl, then stop. One of the men would approach the car and make an exchange, then the car would drive off. Brooks had known all of these young men as boys.
“That’s their corner,” he said.
We watched another car roll through, pause briefly, then drive off. “No respect, no shame,” Brooks said. “That’s what they do. From that alley to that corner. They don’t go no farther than that. See the big brother there? He almost died a couple of years ago. The one drinking the beer back there … I know all of them. And the reason they feel safe here is cause of this building, and because they too chickenshit to go anywhere. But that’s their mentality. That’s their block.”
Brooks showed me a picture of a Little League team he had coached. He went down the row of kids, pointing out which ones were in jail, which ones were dead, and which ones were doing all right. And then he pointed out his son—“That’s my boy, Billy,” Brooks said. Then he wondered aloud if keeping his son with him while working in North Lawndale had hastened his death. “It’s a definite connection, because he was part of what I did here. And I think maybe I shouldn’t have exposed him. But then, I had to,” he said, “because I wanted him with me.”
From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people. But Billy Brooks Jr. had a father. Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder. Adhering to middle-class norms is what made Ethel Weatherspoon a lucrative target for rapacious speculators. Contract sellers did not target the very poor. They targeted black people who had worked hard enough to save a down payment and dreamed of the emblem of American citizenship—homeownership. It was not a tangle of pathology that put a target on Clyde Ross’s back. It was not a culture of poverty that singled out Mattie Lewis for “the thrill of the chase and the kill.” Some black people always will be twice as good. But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast.
Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy. President Lyndon Johnson may have noted in his historic civil-rights speech at Howard University in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But his advisers and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.
After his speech, Johnson convened a group of civil-rights leaders, including the esteemed A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, to address the “ancient brutality.” In a strategy paper, they agreed with the president that “Negro poverty is a special, and particularly destructive, form of American poverty.” But when it came to specifically addressing the “particularly destructive,” Rustin’s group demurred, preferring to advance programs that addressed “all the poor, black and white.”
The urge to use the moral force of the black struggle to address broader inequalities originates in both compassion and pragmatism. But it makes for ambiguous policy. Affirmative action’s precise aims, for instance, have always proved elusive. Is it meant to make amends for the crimes heaped upon black people? Not according to the Supreme Court. In its 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court rejected “societal discrimination” as “an amorphous concept of injury that may be ageless in its reach into the past.” Is affirmative action meant to increase “diversity”? If so, it only tangentially relates to the specific problems of black people—the problem of what America has taken from them over several centuries.
This confusion about affirmative action’s aims, along with our inability to face up to the particular history of white-imposed black disadvantage, dates back to the policy’s origins. “There is no fixed and firm definition of affirmative action,” an appointee in Johnson’s Department of Labor declared. “Affirmative action is anything that you have to do to get results. But this does not necessarily include preferential treatment.”
Yet America was built on the preferential treatment of white people—395 years of it. Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this.
Today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything. On a practical level, the hesitation comes from the dim view the Supreme Court has taken of the reforms of the 1960s. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted. The Fair Housing Act might well be next. Affirmative action is on its last legs. In substituting a broad class struggle for an anti-racist struggle, progressives hope to assemble a coalition by changing the subject.
The politics of racial evasion are seductive. But the record is mixed. Aid to Families With Dependent Children was originally written largely to exclude blacks—yet by the 1990s it was perceived as a giveaway to blacks. The Affordable Care Act makes no mention of race, but this did not keep Rush Limbaugh from denouncing it as reparations. Moreover, the act’s expansion of Medicaid was effectively made optional, meaning that many poor blacks in the former Confederate states do not benefit from it. The Affordable Care Act, like Social Security, will eventually expand its reach to those left out; in the meantime, black people will be injured.
“All that it would take to sink a new WPA program would be some skillfully packaged footage of black men leaning on shovels smoking cigarettes,” the sociologist Douglas S. Massey writes. “Papering over the issue of race makes for bad social theory, bad research, and bad public policy.” To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying. The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same. The lie ignores the fact that closing the “achievement gap” will do nothing to close the “injury gap,” in which black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.
Chicago, like the country at large, embraced policies that placed black America’s most energetic, ambitious, and thrifty countrymen beyond the pale of society and marked them as rightful targets for legal theft. The effects reverberate beyond the families who were robbed to the community that beholds the spectacle. Don’t just picture Clyde Ross working three jobs so he could hold on to his home. Think of his North Lawndale neighbors—their children, their nephews and nieces—and consider how watching this affects them. Imagine yourself as a young black child watching your elders play by all the rules only to have their possessions tossed out in the street and to have their most sacred possession—their home—taken from them.
The message the young black boy receives from his country, Billy Brooks says, is “ ‘You ain’t shit. You not no good. The only thing you are worth is working for us. You will never own anything. You not going to get an education. We are sending your ass to the penitentiary.’ They’re telling you no matter how hard you struggle, no matter what you put down, you ain’t shit. ‘We’re going to take what you got. You will never own anything, nigger.’ ”
IX. Toward A New Country
When clyde ross was a child, his older brother Winter had a seizure. He was picked up by the authorities and delivered to Parchman Farm, a 20,000-acre state prison in the Mississippi Delta region.
“He was a gentle person,” Clyde Ross says of his brother. “You know, he was good to everybody. And he started having spells, and he couldn’t control himself. And they had him picked up, because they thought he was dangerous.”
Built at the turn of the century, Parchman was supposed to be a progressive and reformist response to the problem of “Negro crime.” In fact it was the gulag of Mississippi, an object of terror to African Americans in the Delta. In the early years of the 20th century, Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman used to amuse himself by releasing black convicts into the surrounding wilderness and hunting them down with bloodhounds. “Throughout the American South,” writes David M. Oshinsky in his book Worse Than Slavery, “Parchman Farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality, as well it should be … Parchman is the quintessential penal farm, the closest thing to slavery that survived the Civil War.”
When the Ross family went to retrieve Winter, the authorities told them that Winter had died. When the Ross family asked for his body, the authorities at Parchman said they had buried him. The family never saw Winter’s body.
And this was just one of their losses.
Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.
To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.
Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.
Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.
The early american economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office. The laments about “black pathology,” the criticism of black family structures by pundits and intellectuals, ring hollow in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America’s relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer.
And this destruction did not end with slavery. Discriminatory laws joined the equal burden of citizenship to unequal distribution of its bounty. These laws reached their apex in the mid-20th century, when the federal government—through housing policies—engineered the wealth gap, which remains with us to this day. When we think of white supremacy, we picture colored only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.
On some level, we have always grasped this.
“Negro poverty is not white poverty,” President Johnson said in his historic civil-rights speech.
Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences—deep, corrosive, obstinate differences—radiating painful roots into the community and into the family, and the nature of the individual. These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice.
We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.
And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.
What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.
X. “There Will Be No ‘Reparations’ From Germany”
We are not the first to be summoned to such a challenge.
In 1952, when West Germany began the process of making amends for the Holocaust, it did so under conditions that should be instructive to us. Resistance was violent. Very few Germans believed that Jews were entitled to anything. Only 5 percent of West Germans surveyed reported feeling guilty about the Holocaust, and only 29 percent believed that Jews were owed restitution from the German people.
“The rest,” the historian Tony Judt wrote in his 2005 book, Postwar, “were divided between those (some two-fifths of respondents) who thought that only people ‘who really committed something’ were responsible and should pay, and those (21 percent) who thought ‘that the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what happened to them during the Third Reich.’ ”
Germany’s unwillingness to squarely face its history went beyond polls. Movies that suggested a societal responsibility for the Holocaust beyond Hitler were banned. “The German soldier fought bravely and honorably for his homeland,” claimed President Eisenhower, endorsing the Teutonic national myth. Judt wrote, “Throughout the fifties West German officialdom encouraged a comfortable view of the German past in which the Wehrmacht was heroic, while Nazis were in a minority and properly punished.”
Konrad Adenauer, the postwar German chancellor, was in favor of reparations, but his own party was divided, and he was able to get an agreement passed only with the votes of the Social Democratic opposition.
Among the Jews of Israel, reparations provoked violent and venomous reactions ranging from denunciation to assassination plots. On January 7, 1952, as the Knesset—the Israeli parliament—convened to discuss the prospect of a reparations agreement with West Germany, Menachem Begin, the future prime minister of Israel, stood in front of a large crowd, inveighing against the country that had plundered the lives, labor, and property of his people. Begin claimed that all Germans were Nazis and guilty of murder. His condemnations then spread to his own young state. He urged the crowd to stop paying taxes and claimed that the nascent Israeli nation characterized the fight over whether or not to accept reparations as a “war to the death.” When alerted that the police watching the gathering were carrying tear gas, allegedly of German manufacture, Begin yelled, “The same gases that asphyxiated our parents!”
Begin then led the crowd in an oath to never forget the victims of the Shoah, lest “my right hand lose its cunning” and “my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” He took the crowd through the streets toward the Knesset. From the rooftops, police repelled the crowd with tear gas and smoke bombs. But the wind shifted, and the gas blew back toward the Knesset, billowing through windows shattered by rocks. In the chaos, Begin and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion exchanged insults. Two hundred civilians and 140 police officers were wounded. Nearly 400 people were arrested. Knesset business was halted.
Begin then addressed the chamber with a fiery speech condemning the actions the legislature was about to take. “Today you arrested hundreds,” he said. “Tomorrow you may arrest thousands. No matter, they will go, they will sit in prison. We will sit there with them. If necessary, we will be killed with them. But there will be no ‘reparations’ from Germany.”
Survivors of the Holocaust feared laundering the reputation of Germany with money, and mortgaging the memory of their dead. Beyond that, there was a taste for revenge. “My soul would be at rest if I knew there would be 6 million German dead to match the 6 million Jews,” said Meir Dworzecki, who’d survived the concentration camps of Estonia.
Ben-Gurion countered this sentiment, not by repudiating vengeance but with cold calculation: “If I could take German property without sitting down with them for even a minute but go in with jeeps and machine guns to the warehouses and take it, I would do that—if, for instance, we had the ability to send a hundred divisions and tell them, ‘Take it.’ But we can’t do that.”
The reparations conversation set off a wave of bomb attempts by Israeli militants. One was aimed at the foreign ministry in Tel Aviv. Another was aimed at Chancellor Adenauer himself. And one was aimed at the port of Haifa, where the goods bought with reparations money were arriving. West Germany ultimately agreed to pay Israel 3.45 billion deutsche marks, or more than $7 billion in today’s dollars. Individual reparations claims followed—for psychological trauma, for offense to Jewish honor, for halting law careers, for life insurance, for time spent in concentration camps. Seventeen percent of funds went toward purchasing ships. “By the end of 1961, these reparations vessels constituted two-thirds of the Israeli merchant fleet,” writes the Israeli historian Tom Segev in his book The Seventh Million. “From 1953 to 1963, the reparations money funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system, which tripled its capacity, and nearly half the total investment in the railways.”
Israel’s GNP tripled during the 12 years of the agreement. The Bank of Israel attributed 15 percent of this growth, along with 45,000 jobs, to investments made with reparations money. But Segev argues that the impact went far beyond that. Reparations “had indisputable psychological and political importance,” he writes.
Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.
Assessing the reparations agreement, David Ben-Gurion said:
For the first time in the history of relations between people, a precedent has been created by which a great State, as a result of moral pressure alone, takes it upon itself to pay compensation to the victims of the government that preceded it. For the first time in the history of a people that has been persecuted, oppressed, plundered and despoiled for hundreds of years in the countries of Europe, a persecutor and despoiler has been obliged to return part of his spoils and has even undertaken to make collective reparation as partial compensation for material losses.
Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. “The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,” Clyde Ross told me. “It’s because of then.” In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated “Black Wall Street.” The past was not the past to them. “It was amazing seeing these black women and men who were crippled, blind, in wheelchairs,” Ogletree told me. “I had no idea who they were and why they wanted to see me. They said, ‘We want you to represent us in this lawsuit.’ ”
A commission authorized by the Oklahoma legislature produced a report affirming that the riot, the knowledge of which had been suppressed for years, had happened. But the lawsuit ultimately failed, in 2004. Similar suits pushed against corporations such as Aetna (which insured slaves) and Lehman Brothers (whose co-founding partner owned them) also have thus far failed. These results are dispiriting, but the crime with which reparations activists charge the country implicates more than just a few towns or corporations. The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.
John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
In 2010, jacob s. rugh, then a doctoral candidate at Princeton, and the sociologist Douglas S. Massey published a study of the recent foreclosure crisis. Among its drivers, they found an old foe: segregation. Black home buyers—even after controlling for factors like creditworthiness—were still more likely than white home buyers to be steered toward subprime loans. Decades of racist housing policies by the American government, along with decades of racist housing practices by American businesses, had conspired to concentrate African Americans in the same neighborhoods. As in North Lawndale half a century earlier, these neighborhoods were filled with people who had been cut off from mainstream financial institutions. When subprime lenders went looking for prey, they found black people waiting like ducks in a pen.
“High levels of segregation create a natural market for subprime lending,” Rugh and Massey write, “and cause riskier mortgages, and thus foreclosures, to accumulate disproportionately in racially segregated cities’ minority neighborhoods.”
Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself. According to TheNew York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and to their subprime products as “ghetto loans.”
“We just went right after them,” Beth Jacobson, a former Wells Fargo loan officer, told TheTimes. “Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”
In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit. The following year, Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million. But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.
In 2017, almost 660,000 people were arrested for cannabis-related charges in the U.S., the FBI reported recently. This means that, according to a recent open letter about equity and justice released by Equity First Alliance, even as legalization sweeps the nation, over half a million people are still losing their liberty, voting rights, and access to education, housing and future employment every year.
To make things worse, while many jurisdictions that have already legalized marijuana have promised to clean up the records of those convicted for non-violent cannabis offenses, most of them are still on the hook.
In Los Angeles, California, the largest recreational cannabis market in the world, hundreds of thousands of cannabis-related convictions have yet to be expunged. In Colorado, unfairness has also persisted and prevailed. “Young people of color have been arrested at higher rates for cannabis possession since legalization happened, while arrest rates for young white people have declined,” said Adam Vine of the Equity First Alliance. “Given the racial bias in the criminal justice system, all of these provisions continue to disproportionately harm people of color.”
“In Pennsylvania, prior cannabis convictions prevent people from joining the medical cannabis workforce,” he added. “And, in Illinois, those same convictions have been preventing people from becoming cannabis patients.”
Finally, the 2018 Senate Farm Bill contains language that would legalize hemp at the federal level. However, the new law would still bar people with felony drug convictions from participating in the hemp industry.
A Noble (H)Emprize
According to Sonia Erika of Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council and a spokesperson for Equity First Alliance, who helped to organize N.E.W and its events, “Automatic expungement, post-conviction relief, and other aspects of criminal justice and policing reform must be a part of all cannabis legalization.” The problem, in her view, is raising awareness.
In an attempt to capture the attention of the American public, a coalition of more than 20 organizations working at the intersection of the cannabis industry, racial equity, and reparative justice, have joined local and community groups across the country for the inaugural National Expungement Week (N.E.W.) October 20-27, 2018.
Poster via www.offtherecord.us
N.E.W. will offer free clinics to help to remove, seal, or reclassify eligible convictions from criminal records. N.E.W. events will be held in:
Many of the N.E.W. events will also provide attendees with supportive services including employment resources, voter engagement, and health screenings. The N.E.W. website provides a link to an online toolkit for communities who want to host their own record change events now and in the future.
When we accept that prestigious offer of admission from Princeton University, some small part of us becomes part of the great history of Princeton ― and so some part of us becomes shackled, forever, to the stains of slavery, Jim Crow, and continued racism. Just as the United States and white Americans themselves are bound, morally, to offer reparations to African-Americans, so too is the institution of Princeton University. Because of the University’s complicity in slavery and structural racism, it has an ethical commitment to provide justice in the form of reparations to African-American students.
It is still somewhat controversial to remind ourselves that the United States was founded as a slaveholding nation, with slaveholding founders, with slavery in our Constitution. We are still haunted by this past.
But to focus on the “nation as a whole” is to miss our own history, right here on campus. Princeton, of course, was not above holding slaves. Thanks to the publication last summer of the “Princeton & Slavery” project, Princeton has put together a tally list of its own particular crimes. The first nine Princeton presidents held slaves, as did a majority of our founding trustees. More Princetonians fought for the Confederacy than the Union. Princeton held slave auctions on its own grounds. Professors owned slaves ― some endowed professorships still honor men who came into their fortunes through slavery (Ewing, Dod, McCormick, Madison) ― and donations were financed from slave sales. Why would any of our professors, experts in their fields, want to be associated with these names? Then there are the sales themselves. How much of our mighty endowment, then, is soiled with that blood capital ― as interest and prestige accumulate year over year over year?
Princeton has always been the most conservative and “southern” Ivy League school. By the way, that is not my own perception ― in a letter to W.E.B Du Bois, a Princeton University administrator argued that “we have never had any colored students here, though there is nothing in the University statutes to prevent their admission. It is possible, however, in our proximity to the South and the large number of Southern students here, that Negro students would find Princeton less comfortable than some other institutions.”
Institutional prejudice did not end with our vaunted Woodrow. Yes, southern enrollment, which had been low after the Civil War, bounced back under his tenure, but Princeton remained white. The first African American to graduate from the University in peacetime was in 1951. Some might argue that Princeton has changed ― we no longer have slaves, nor do we prevent African Americans from entering the FitzRandolph Gate. By excluding African Americans over many generations, it left African Americans unable to access the capital, prestige, and resources that white students were able to have. While Princeton opened doors for white students, the FitzRandolph Gate stayed barred for blacks. And as we understand more deeply the cost of “dream hoarding” ― the upper-middle class’s stranglehold on chance ― does Princeton not foot some of this cost too?
“White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.”
― Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?”
Princeton undergraduates, because of their voluntary enrollment at Princeton, are complicit. Hence, we are all obligated to the University to honor its own obligations. “But I’m not guilty,” you might say. And the response to that is simple enough ― I am not arguing for individual Princeton undergraduates to provide reparations (though many of us likely ought to), I am arguing for Princeton University, as an institution, to right its wrongs. We, as undergraduates who voluntarily accepted Princeton’s offer of admission, should be bound by its obligations much as we are bound by many other obligations imposed on us once we agree to matriculate ― to write a thesis, to take so many classes a semester, to go on Outdoor Action, to stay out of disciplinary or academic trouble. We all accept admission on the understanding that there are obligations.
And the University, in its own capacity, has done wrong — and not wrong once, but wrong for generations. Any one undergraduate’s guilt or lack thereof is inconsequential. The University must atone for its wrongs. Princeton University is wealthy ― almost incomparably so. And yes, a certain amount of that wealth should be set aside for financial reparations to African Americans. But what Princeton could do that no other institution could do is use the resource that is most valuable and most irreplaceable ― its students and faculty. Princeton should require all students to contribute to the wellbeing of communities that it has almost certainly harmed throughout the years ― in particular, communities of color.
Princetonians ― the collected assemblage of confident, competent individuals ― have an unparalleled pedigree and skill set that makes us and our intelligence far more valuable than even the billions in our stock market portfolio. Throwing money at problems is great, but throwing skilled human capital is even better. This is our opportunity to liaise with those organizations on the ground, to learn from them and assist them in some substantial capacity. Princeton produces a bevy of skilled students ― engineers, statisticians, writers, artists ― that would be useful to almost any organization. Why does Princeton not provide those students the means to do the good work enshrined in our motto ― In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity? Instead, the University seems more interested in ensuring Wall Street’s continued access to the best and brightest. But Princeton owes Wall Street nothing ― it owes those that it has benefited from plundering.
I cannot think that what has been done so far is anywhere near enough. Naming an administrative building after Toni Morrison is not the same as renaming the Wilson School. Tour stickers around campus are insufficient. Increasing diversity is not the same as reparative admissions policies ― for the Class of 2022 , African Americans make up only 8 percent ― roughly the same amount as the Classes of 2021, 2020, and my own Class of 2019. Yet African Americans are 13.4 percent of the U.S population. If reparations means giving more now to make up for less previously, we are failing dramatically.
As for all concrete proposals, I can’t confess to knowing exactly how Princeton should go about reparations. And ultimately, it is not my place to. I have no interest in falling into the neoliberal “white savior” trap. Perhaps the best way, as professor Avery Kolers at the University of Louisville suggests, is for Princeton to make available money and resources (credit hours, paid faculty and staff time, etc.) available to African American students, alumni, and target New Jersey organizations, who then have the final say on how those resources could be be used to make reparations. By being judges on competitive project boards or in some other way that ensures Princeton’s reparations are not imposed from the top-down, we could actively take into account the voices and perspectives of those the reparations are meant to aid.
“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
Having done wrong, what compels us to reparations? First, an appeal to common decency. When we do wrong, we are often expected or encouraged, whether by others or our own conscience, to do right by those we have done wrong. Even in the simple case of insulting someone, we can see that as an example of wrongfully taking status or dignity from that other person. An apology is the reparation. The ravages of slavery and the inequities of racism are far worse ― should not the reparations, then, be proportional to the harms done? Second, as John Locke points out, when someone does something wrong to another human, they violate that human’s status and dignity as an equal and as an important individual worthy of certain fundamental, natural rights. This should be familiar to any American: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Reparations are a great divider. More than any other article, I know this one may have the greatest potential for controversy. Some part of me wishes I could hold my tongue. But it is better to speak the honest truth ― that you know which is right ― than the truth most palatable. Princeton — despite having bravely acknowledged its past failings ― has not done enough to make up for them.
In terms of symbolic reparations (names on buildings), or in terms of financial reparations (donations and financial aid), or in terms of reparations of human capital (volunteerism and affirmative action), Princeton has something to give. If white America owes black America, then so too does Princeton University have its own debt to pay.
Reparations for African Americans are crucial to fight white supremacy and compensate for slavery’s consequences, scholars said at a town hall forum Monday, but they aren’t enough.
Racial inequality and discrimination are so engrained in diverse aspects of the American society that no single measure would solve all the problems, said Wahneema Lubiano—associate professor of African and African American studies—at the panel. Reparations are usually discussed in the form of monetary payments to individuals or land-based compensations to communities.
“Sometimes we talk in a way in which the word ‘reparation’ acts as a singularity,” Lubiano said. “Whereas in fact, it is a complicated set of multiple possibilities, multiple sites, multiple stages and multiple actors.”
Lubiano cited the history department’s recent requestto rename the Carr Building on East Campus, for example, as one way Americans could reflect on the history of slavery and redress its victims, aside from material compensation.
One projection for the cost of monetary reparations is between $5.9 and $14.2 trillion, according to a 2015 study at the University of Connecticut.
Racism is more profound than slavery and its legacy, said William “Sandy” Darity, panelist and Samuel DuBois Cook professor of public policy. It is most fundamentally manifested in the economic disparity between races, such as disparities in employment rate and educational opportunities, he argued. The median of white families’ incomes is still higher than that of black families overall, Darity said.
Darity notes that the movement to “Bank Black and Buy Black”—a movement that encourages African Americans to channel together their assets to create jobs and build businesses—will not address the ongoing wealth inequality.
Black firms and institutions are usually much smaller and less profitable than their counterparts owned by white Americans, he explained.
“This is not because black-owned institutions lack strong business models or lack wise leaders,” Darity said. “It’s because the inherited economic situations of the communities where they operate make it hard for start-ups to develop.”
For example, black families usually have minimal liquid assets, Darity explained.
African Americans’ appeal for reparations for slavery echo with similar appeals around the globe, said Laurent Dubois, professor of history, at the panel. In 2013, 5,000 Kenyans received a 20 million pounds in reparations from the British government as a compensation for the country’s brutal colonial rule in the 1950s.
From a legal standpoint, standing and redressability are issues that have prevented reparations from becoming reality, said Malik Edwards, panelist and law professor at the North Carolina Central University.
In this context, the African American community needs to demonstrate that the negative impact of slavery is ongoing and that there is a concrete form of remedy the court is able to offer, he said.
After the Civil War, Union General William Sherman infamously promised reparations for slavery in the form of “forty acres and a mule,” Edwards said. That never came true.
Economics and political science graduate student Amber Hendley has recently conducted a counterfactual study remapping the American landscape according to General Sherman’s original promise. She also calculated approximately how much African Americans would gain financially from the land.
“If we have been given what was stated,” Hendley said. “I do not believe we would have the problems we have today.”
As essential as reparations are, they cannot compensate for all the sufferings slaves and their descendants have undergone, said Joseph Winters, assistant professor of religious studies and African American studies.
Slaves suffered from psychological and mental hardship throughout the American history, which cannot be quantifiable, Winter said. And nowadays, African Americans still encounter stigma and lack a full recognition of citizenship and a sense of home, he added.
The event, called “Reparations Now? Looking at Racial Wealth Inequality in a Time of Authoritarianism,” was sponsored by the department of African and African American Studies.
Although Lubiano noted the limitations of reparations in narrowing the social and economic gaps between races, she also said that attempting to carry out reparations opens up valuable discussions and debates across social stratums.
“Reparations offer us opportunities to do things that we don’t usually do—which is to talk to each other horizontally despite the existing vertical hierarchy,” Lubiano said. “And it appears to me to be so important that it is worth the risk of failing.”