Currently, major Democratic Party 2020 presidential candidates have committed to a public policy discussion of reparations for African Americans–and two have tentatively committed to some form of reparations.
In 2009 the U.S. Senate belatedly passed a resolution officially apologizing for racial oppression that targeted African Americans: “The Congress (A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.” These mostly white senators next explicitly barred African Americans from seeking material reparations for the role the U.S. government played in this admittedly brutal racial oppression. A decade later this disclaimer seems increasingly untenable.
Consider the often-forgotten timeline of this very long history of whites’ anti-black oppression:
Black enslavement, circa 60 percent of US history (1619-1865)
Reconstruction Era (circa 1866-1877)
Jim Crow segregation, circa 22 percent of U.S. history (1877-1969)
Since 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were bought off a Dutch-flagged pirate ship in Jamestown, white-on-black oppression has been imbedded in our economic, political, educational, and other institutions. Few Americans ever consider how long slavery lasted–for about 246 of our 400 years and 60 percent of our history. That fact helps explain why slavery was foundational and aggressively protected in the 1787 Constitution. The U.S. is the only advanced industrialized country that still lives under a Constitution made by and substantially for white slaveholders. Next, add in nearly a century of Jim Crow segregation of African Americans, and you have accounted for most (about 82 percent) of this country’s history.
The new discussion by Democratic Party candidates of significant reparations for African Americans has emerged because of the reinvigorated political power of Black (and Brown) voters, now the Democratic Party base. While this Democratic discussion of the what and how of reparations is still fuzzy, the presence of several presidential candidates of color and a racially diverse political base likely insures it will be substantive. It remains to be seen if the inevitable push-back of many whites will force these candidates to back off of reparations ideas as the presidential campaign intensifies.
For five decades as a research sociologist, I have examined in detail this country’s systemic racism and issues of redress and reparations, yet this is the first time I have seen this level of public political interest in major compensation to African Americans for centuries of life-shortening discrimination and exploitation they and their ancestors have endured at white hands.
A major justification for such reparations lies in the harsh reality of the stolen labor and lives of millions enslaved from 1619 to 1865, of many more millions legally Jim-Crowed from the 1870s to the 1960s, and of those millions who face much racial discrimination today.
As I have detailed in a new 4th edition of Racist America, trillions of dollars in wealth were stolen from Black Americans during the centuries-long history of slavery and Jim Crow. This economic theft continues today, in direct white discrimination and in socially inherited unjust enrichments from whites’ earlier generations. Most whites have been able to pass some accumulated wealth over five to twenty generations, while most African Americans have had that opportunity for about two of those generations. For centuries, this theft of labor and lives was carried out by whites as individuals and by white-run government institutions backed by a white-biased legal system.
From the 17th century to the mid-19th century much white family and community enrichment came directly, or by means of economic multiplier effects, from slave plantations or the many related economic enterprises. Thomas Craemer calculated the hours worked by enslaved Black workers from 1776 (Declaration of Independence) to 1865 (official end to slavery) and estimated the uncompensated labor to be $5.9-14.2 trillion in current dollars. If one expands his enslavement period a century before 1776, the total figure would likely be even higher.
One common argument against making reparations for this stolen Black labor is that “slavery happened hundreds of years ago” and that those debts are owed by and to people now deceased. This argument ignores contemporary whites’ inheritance of massive unjust enrichments from their ancestors involved in the slavery system. It also ignores their unjust enrichment from the large-scale discrimination suffered by African Americans whose labor was stolen during the long Jim Crow era. Millions–many still alive today–endured major violence and economic discrimination under legal segregation. Many can name the still-extant whites and organizations who did this discrimination and its unjust impoverishing.
Drawing on research studies of this stolen wealth, I have estimated the total of the current worth of that stolen black labor in the 400-year era of slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary discrimination to be in the $10-20 trillion range. This figure is necessarily high, about the size of the gross domestic product (GDP) generated in the U.S. in a recent year.
Much more than labor was lost. Housing equities are the main repositories of U.S. family wealth. Jonathan Kaplan and Andrew Valls have provided a strong case for reparations based on blatant housing discrimination keeping African Americans from building significant equities over the Jim Crow era. White-implemented government homeownership programs after World War II, such as the Veterans’ Administration programs, incorporated large-scale anti-black discrimination. These government programs enabled a great many white families to move into the middle class, and the resulting buildup of white housing equities became a major source of wealth passed along to white children and grandchildren. In contrast, Black families usually faced housing and job discrimination from whites and were unable to pass similar wealth to descendants. Currently, the wealth gap between White and Black Americans is substantially the result of such government-supported housing (and job) discrimination.
Today most whites are opposed to significant reparations for these damages suffered by African Americans, yet white politicians, judges, and ordinary citizens have accepted the principle of reparations for other past damages. For example, the U.S. government has successfully pressured postwar German governments to make major reparations to Nazi Holocaust victims. These many billions of dollars in reparations are currently supported in opinion polls by a majority of Americans, including a majority of whites. So, why not for African Americans for centuries of US racial oppression?