The Math and Money behind Reparations

Ideas and Issues

Greenville        Several candidates have indicated in very general terms that they are sympathetic to reparations, including Senators Warren, Sanders, and Booker, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro.  That doesn’t mean it’s coming, but perhaps there will start being some meat on these bones.

Several scholars have tried to put some math to the question, and it’s an interesting exercise.   There are roughly 44 million African-Americans in the United States.  Estimates indicate that 30 million could likely document a direct tie through relatives to slavery.

As you can tell, we’re already narrowing the field.  The shadow of slavery persists to this day for black Americans, regardless of blood ties to the evil institution.  This has been documented in looking at the segregation in housing, education, and opportunity that lingers over the last 150 years.  Nonetheless, the estimates are in the trillions inclusive of all of the damage in creating a caste society from the one where slavery dominated.  The South is an ongoing case study.

Other scholars do the math back to the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to those emancipated during the Civil War.  The promise was real, and the history is tragic.  In 1865, General William T. Sherman promised 40 acres and a mule as the Civil War wound down, redistributing a huge tract of Atlantic coastline to black Americans.  President Abraham Lincoln and Congress gave their approval and soon 40,000 freedmen in the South began to plant.  With Lincoln’s assassination, his successor Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and returned the land to the former owners.  Congress made another attempt at compensation, but Johnson vetoed it.  Later Johnson was the first president to be impeached, but that hardly makes us even for the damage he did in upending Reconstruction and the prospects of our country taking a different path.

Some scholars look at the math as the value of 40 acres and a mule over these many years with inflation until today.  The math behind that promise made and then retracted would give the 30 million on the low end of the reparation’s calculation about $70,000 a person under such a reckoning.  That’s big money, but it seems too little to offset the weight of time or balance inequality over generations.  Given the relative lack of citizen wealth in African-American families compared to white families, it would be huge, but somehow not necessarily a game changer.  $70,000 grant wouldn’t be enough necessarily to move next door to the upper middle class.  It might pay for some student loans and a down payment on something, but it wouldn’t end job and housing discrimination.  I’m not saying anyone would look a gift horse in the mouth and walk away from the money, I’m just saying it wouldn’t change the game between winners and losers and achieve equality.  It would be a start though if accompanied by equal commitments around long-term development in education, housing, and job opportunity.

Of course, a couple of trillion is a bite in the butt of the budget, and that could make all of these promises vague.  Committees would be formed.  Studies would be made.  Nero would fiddle. Rome would burn.

The good news is that reparations is becoming part of the political conversation.  We need to make sure this doesn’t end up at the layaway counter.  We need this to be a pay now and pay more later deal.


Please enjoy Chris Shiflett – Welcome To Your First Heartache

Thanks to KABF.