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What would reparations for Black Americans look like? An expert does the math

Tulsa's history is casting a larger light on the long-term effects of institutional racism, lost opportunities and the toll it all takes on the wealth of Black Americans. The wealth gap is believed to have widened during the pandemic and stretches among all levels of education. William Darity, a professor of economics and African American studies at Duke University, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Tulsa's history is casting a larger light on the long-term effects of institutional racism, lost income and opportunities, and the toll this all takes on the financial well-being of Black Americans.

    The wealth gap that Yamiche mentioned and reported on is believed to have widened last year during the pandemic, and it exists among all levels of education.

    We explore this now and the president's initiatives with William Darity. He's a professor of economics and African American studies at Duke University. He has long studied and written about this.

    Professor Darity, very good to see you. Thank you so much for joining us.

    We know what happened in Tulsa 100 years ago, horrible in human terms. What about in economic terms? What did it mean over time, not only for the people of Tulsa, but more broadly for Black Americans across this nation?

  • William Darity:

    So, it's been estimated the property losses, apart from the casualties and death, the property losses are estimated at a present value of in excess of $600 million today.

    And the implications across time have to do with the deprivation of resources for multiple generations. Tulsa's only one example or one instance of this type of atrocity.

    There were upwards of 100 massacres of this type that took place in the United States from the end of the Civil War into the 1940s, which had tremendous implications for the capacity of previous generations of Black Americans to provide resources for subsequent generations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you have done, I know, a lot of thinking, a lot of writing about what is due, not only the individuals who experienced these massacres, riots across the country, but to Black Americans across time.

    And what, in general, do you believe is owed?

  • William Darity :

    So, I believe that the difference in wealth between Black and white Americans best captures the cumulative intergenerational effects of all of these atrocities, including the fact that, at the very end of the Civil War, Black Americans were promised 40-acre land grants that were never delivered.

    And so, if we look over time, the Black-white wealth gap is a consequence of what has occurred over multiple generations, and it captures the disadvantage that has accumulated for current generations. And it amounts to $840,900, on average, between a Black and white household.

    Another way to think about this is, Black Americans who have ancestors who were enslaved in the United States constitute about 12 percent of the nation's population, but possess less than 2 percent of the nation's wealth.

    So, if we were going to close that gap, it would require us to make a national expenditure in excess of $11 trillion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Eleven trillion, an enormous sum.

    And what we are hearing from President Biden today is, among other things, he's talking about addressing housing inequities, doing — taking a number of specific steps to try to ensure that the racial gap in the homes and the availability of housing is improved. He's also looking at economic opportunity, helping businesses.

    How far do steps like these go toward accomplishing the kind of broad reparations you're speaking about?

  • William Darity :

    So, this is a situation in which the proposal are not necessarily bad ideas, but they won't go very far in terms of eliminating racial wealth differences.

    The amounts are simply too small, and the focus is targeted on specific asset areas that are not necessarily the full range of assets in which there's a difference in Black and white wealth ownings.

    So, if you look at — if you look at the typical American's combination of assets, about 25 percent are attributable to an individual's primary residence, but a remaining 75 percent is attributable to retirement accounts, stocks and bonds, business ownership, and nonresidential real estate.

    And so a focus exclusively on homeownership is not going to get us very far. And the amount that's proposed is extremely small relative to the entire gap.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the Biden administration, at this point, is not speaking about, they're not taking a position on reparations. They have said it's something that they are studying.

    But one can assume that part of what's going on here is the political reality of how difficult it would be to get something of that magnitude passed through the Congress, when the president is having a hard time even getting something like infrastructure through.

  • William Darity :

    So, it's over 155 years due.

    But you're correct. I don't think it's likely that a serious reparations plan would pass the current Congress. However, there has been a sea change in public attitude about reparations for Black Americans. In the year 2000, only about 4 percent of white Americans endorsed reparations. By the year 2018, that percentage had risen to 16, low, but definitely not 4 percent.

    And, today, the best estimates suggest that it's about 30 percent of Americans who endorse the idea of reparative justice for Black Americans. So, the momentum is moving in the right direction. We will have to see if this is something sustainable.

    But other types of policies like the president is proposing fall far short from addressing the racial wealth gap.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear what you're saying, Professor Darity. They fall short.

    And we didn't mention the aid the president is speaking about in terms of transportation, where entire communities have been split open and divided because of highways, for example, that have gone through.

    But are these kinds of steps, are they harmful, or is it that they just — are they — can they even count as first steps toward what you are saying is necessary?

  • William Darity :

    If they were indeed steps that held the promise for a comprehensive effort in the future, then I would be more enthusiastic about them.

    These are not bad things to do. They just will not have much of an effect on the Black-white wealth gap.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, if you could say something right now to President Biden about what else he should do, what would it be?

  • William Darity :

    I think it would be very, very exciting and encouraging if he were to appoint a presidential commission to address the history of racial atrocities in the United States and design a full-scale proposal for reparations.

    He has said that he's in favor of some type of commission, but it seems that it's a congressional commission that he's referring to. I think it would be very impressive if we had a presidential commission to take on that task.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Professor William Darity of Duke University, we thank you very much.

  • William Darity :

    Thank you for having me.

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