By William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen. The University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 424 pages. $28/hardcover; $21.99/eBook.
“The failure to pay a debt in a timely fashion does not extinguish the obligation.” How can the U.S. government atone for the sin of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction, the apartheid Jim Crow state, and the active discrimination and atrocities that U.S. systems and White Americans perpetrate daily against Black Americans today? In this academic but crystal-clear text, William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen lay out a path toward acknowledgment, redress, and closure of these wrongs: a detailed program of Black reparations.
This book’s power is in its pragmatic thoroughness. The first 11 chapters lay out the history of past calls for reparations for Black Americans; analyze the widespread effect of U.S. slavery on the country’s economic development from its formation to the present, including the present-day racial wealth gap; and illustrate how at every point the U.S. government could have chosen to work toward equity for Black Americans; it chose not to. The last two chapters are dedicated to the authors’ proposed next steps: Congressionally legislated reparations in the form of payments to Black Americans whose ancestors White Americans enslaved.
If you ever doubted that stolen labor built the foundation of the United States of America—not only in Southern agriculture but in every industry and throughout the colonies and then nation—or how racial discrimination, resulting in persistent devaluation of Black lives, has had economic consequence, I challenge you to read this book. Despite the horrific details of violence and trauma that history’s truths demand this story depict, the economic analysis is unemotional and almost devoid of pathos: “one obvious consequence [of lynching],” the authors observe, “was the frequent elimination of a family’s breadwinner.” In this way, the text remains fixed to its thesis: that “racism and discrimination have perpetually crippled black economic opportunities,” and that reparations can place American on the path to racial equality.
The result is convincing. Darity and Mullen make their case in what read to me as watertight specificity: that in a country where we enacted “compensated emancipation” for slaveholders as a means of ending slavery; one where we are accustomed to assigning monetary value to damages to human lives; one where the Federal Reserve was capable of making a $1-trillion overnight transfer to bail out investment banks during the Great Recession in 2008, large-scale reparations for Black Americans are both possible and necessary.
I don’t claim to be an economist or an expert in public policy, and I admit that the details of the reparations program the authors lay out are beyond me. But it’s clear to me that this text should be part of any conversation about reparations. If your response to the idea is to argue that there are other, better roads to equality, please read this book, and then show me a better idea.
Anna Carolyn McCormally is a member of Herndon (Va.) Meeting. She has a bachelor’s in economics from Earlham College and a master of fine arts in fiction from the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives with her partner in Washington, D.C., and works for transportation equity at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.