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Reflections on Recent Controversy and the Case for #PureReparations

Dr. William "Sandy" Darity of Duke University


This is longer than a 140-character Tweet, but I respectfully ask that all who participated in exchanges over a statement I made on Twitter on February 4, 2021, concerning #PureReparations, that aroused a firestorm of responses, please read this from start to finish. Some of the responses to my statement were serious, thoughtful, and critical, but others were so hostile. I am convinced many of them were written by people who only had, at best, second- or third-hand knowledge of the content of my message.

Let me be clear, I remain steadfast that African American reparations in the United States should be designated specifically for black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. It is a position that I have maintained for upwards of 20 years, first articulated with the eligibility criteria I presented in an article published with Dania Frank in 2003 in the American Economic Review. 

The criteria expressed at the time were twofold: 1. An American citizen would have to demonstrate they have at least one ancestor enslaved in the United States. 2. An American citizen would have to demonstrate that for at least ten years before the adoption of a reparations program they self-classified as black, negro, or African American. The first criterion is a lineage standard; the second is an identity standard. Both standards must be met to merit receipt of reparations payments.

Lineage Criteria

In our recent book, From Here to Equality (FHTE), Kirsten Mullen and I modify the identity standard to lengthen the time to at least twelve years (two Senatorial terms) and to include the adoption of a study commission for reparations as one of two events that would trigger the time count on self-classification.

The core objective always has been to include all persons, and their descendants, who have been subjected to the cumulative, intergenerational effects of slavery, legal segregation and white terrorist violence, and post-Civil Rights Era mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks, and ongoing discrimination in the justice claim. This is the community whose ancestors were denied the promised 40 acres as restitution for the years of bondage and as a material springboard for entry into full citizenship in the United States. 

Kirsten and I argue further, in FHTE, the best economic indicator of the combined effects of these atrocities is the racial wealth gap.  We propose that elimination of the gap yields the baseline value for a reparations plan—demanding a federal government expenditure of $10 to $12 trillion.  It is a key aspect of our project to generate a research-based standard for determining the size of the bill that is due. We do not identify an upper bound for the bill. 

We also insist that priority be given to mobilization of the funds in the form of direct payments to eligible recipients, whether cash transfers, trust accounts, other types of endowments, or some combination thereof. 

Necessary Exclusions

The two eligibility criteria necessarily exclude many Americans. The lineage standard will exclude all blacks in the United States who migrated to the United States and became citizens after the end of the Civil War. Their descendants also will not be eligible, in the absence of a parent’s or grandparent’s intermarriage with black Americans having ancestry anchored in US slavery. Counting among blacks excluded would be the relatively small group that migrated to the United States during the Jim Crow years (estimated to be, according to a Smithsonian study, to the right of the decimal point). Also excluded is a much larger group of black immigrants (now approaching ten percent of the nation’s black population) who arrived after 1964, especially coming in large numbers from the 1980s onward. 

The identity standard excludes all persons who self-identified as non-black, inclusive of all white Americans, at a point where there was no apparent financial benefit from classifying oneself as black.

Meeting the lineage standard necessitates serious genealogical research. As a result, in FHTE, Kirsten Mullen and I recommend the federal government establish an agency with genealogists with expertise in African American ancestry to provide free services to all persons seeking to establish their reparations claim. Despite that recommendation, we continue to get substantial push back from those who say many black Americans with ancestors enslaved in the US will hit a wall in getting past the 1870 Census to identify their particular ancestors who were held in bondage before 1865. Therefore, I have been giving more thought to modifications in the criterion that would make it easier for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery to be assured of inclusion. 

Balloon Reasoning

One possibility that seemed reasonable is the one I advanced that stirred the pot to a boil—include black immigrants who came during the Jim Crow years on the eligibility list. Let me emphasize, I advanced this to prompt discussion. I even referred to this in a later post as a “trial balloon,” which left me open to the somewhat humorous charges that the balloon popped or, quite the opposite, the balloon was made of lead. 

Here is the thinking that I pursued: Allowing pre-1950s black immigrants onto the reparations roll eases genealogical proof required of black American descendants of U.S. slavery to establish their lineage claim. You necessarily have a tradeoff between letting a small number of otherwise excluded black folk in the door versus keeping the strong genealogical standard that will demand going past the 1870 “wall.”  Under the former case, with the relaxed lineage standard, a person would have to demonstrate, say, that they have at least two black ancestors who were citizens of the USA before 1950 or 1960. 

Then, eligibility would be much easier to establish for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery at the “price” of including a small number of black immigrants who arrived during legal segregation. Let a few in who do not meet the original lineage standard to ensure that all make it in who meet the original lineage standard. 

No Mission Creep

I reject the “slippery slope” argument that has it that making this exception opens the gates for every other group to piggyback onto the reparations’ claim. Conditions can be drawn so precisely that no additional groups will become eligible. 

Nevertheless, I do take seriously, the following critical response to my “trial balloon”: The limitation of African American reparations to black American descendants of US slavery is a matter of principle that should not be compromised. America’s history of racial injustice has targeted this community so consistently and with such ferocity that we should brook no modification in the criteria, even it remains more difficult for each individual to establish eligibility for the merited compensation. 

In fact, I take it so seriously, in a later message, I indicate that I would not advance as an option the proposal any longer, and I will stand committed solely to the original criterion. Unlike what is suggested in a number of messages on Twitter, I never proposed that recent black immigrants should be eligible for reparations from the U.S. government. Nor do I anticipate reneging on that position. 

Additional Considerations

I must note we do much in FHTE than meet the important task of advancing a blueprint for reparations or #PureReparations. 

We also explore in-depth the consequences of the nation’s failure to engage in De-Confederatization in the aftermath of the Civil War, a failure that can be viewed as leading in almost a straight line to the January 6, 2021 coup attempt in the nation’s capitol. 

We demonstrate that the promise of 40 acres was real and tangible—and the promise was not kept. Had the promise been kept it would have meant an allocation of at least 40 million acres of land to the freedmen. We consistently confront false beliefs that Americans hold about slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction era, and the sources of the enduring black-white wealth gap. 

We show that had compensated emancipation taken place on a national level, slavery could have ended without a Civil War. Southern slaveholders would not even negotiate such a deal, preferring to fight their own war of “independence.”

We also provide numerical values to assess dollar amounts of the devaluation of black lives. We answer all of the standard complaints raised about African American reparations we could identify.

HR40 Concerns

Given the lifetime of effort put into reparations research and the writing of the book, it is especially painful to witness the assertions that have been made about my motives and integrity. One set of assertions says that the “trial balloon” was a move calculated to put me on the HR 40 reparations study Commission. This is odd given the extent of my criticisms of HR 40 as enabling legislation for a Commission of uncertain provenance and establishment.  

Moreover, historically both Presidential and Congressional Commissions are less likely to include as members individuals who have staked out very public and pronounced positions on the issues of concern to the Commissions. It is those who leave a very sparse trail of information about what they actually believe who are most likely to be selected to Commissions of these types. Comparative silence is the most effective route to appointment to a Presidential or Congressional Commission.

Mission Over Commission

I knew that staking out a very forceful and public stance on reparations probably would remove me from consideration. Being on the Commission never has been a major goal of mine. I am, like many others who are coalescing now to keep our eyes on the ultimate prize, a Reparationist. Our goal is the passage of legislation for a comprehensive national program of reparations that, at minimum, brings the black share of the nation’s wealth into consistency with the black share of the nation’s population, rather than keeping it 400-percent lower.

Kirsten Mullen and I know that there long has been a need to establish a coherent, logically sound case and to produce a plausible plan for the execution of a reparations project. That was our intent in From Here to Equality. We hope to have the opportunity to testify before an African American reparations Commission if it comes into being, and we hope that our work will influence its deliberations.

However, it always has been more important to both of us to lay out the strongest case for African American reparations we could design, rather than manipulate our images to increase the likelihood we would be on the HR 40 Commission. We do not make public statements or take difficult stands on issues with an eye toward wrangling a seat on a not yet existing Commission that, in the present moment, would be the product of a deeply flawed Congressional bill. 

The other assertion is the accusation that everything we are doing is simply to make money by selling copies of our book. Let me be frank: Of course, we want our book to sell well, but it is because we want our book to be widely read. We believe that it can have a positive effect on people’s attitudes toward reparations and move us closer to the ultimate prize. 

Moving On

We recognize that our support of all Reparationist groups and individuals, regardless of affiliation, makes some uncomfortable or insecure. This development is unfortunate. However, our efforts to realize reparations for those that descend from US Chattel Slaves will not be deterred. This sacred mission should be placed above all personal issues. 

Fortunately, while we are not rich, at present both of us make incomes adequate to meet our needs regardless of the number of books we sell. We are not reliant upon “subscribers” to our book to put food on the table, keep the lights on in our home, or keep gas in the car.

We do get great satisfaction in learning that the audience for the book is growing. It has been a labor of love, and we hope it is contributing a scholarly foundation for true reparations. 

Let’s all move forward toward #PureReparations.  

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