Okay, Boomer, It’s Time to Fund Reparations

Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C., June 6, 2020. © Koshu Kunii/Unsplash.

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? —The Epistle of James 2:14 (The Message Bible)

I had a paternal great-great-something grandfather in the eighteenth century who bequeathed his slaves to his wife in his will, and a beloved maternal grandfather who belonged to the Klan in Oklahoma and might have even participated in bombings during the Tulsa race massacre in 1921. I have considered myself “not racist” for many years, but then I am privileged not to have to think about racism all the time. Four hundred years of slavery and structural racism are a burden that all White Americans must acknowledge and affirmatively seek to repair, but the sticky question is how to pay for those reparations.

Personally, I have long struggled with the concept of reparations for slavery and racism. How much would it cost? Where would the money come from? How much is enough? Whom would it benefit? How would it be paid out? How much easier it might have been to appease my White conscience if each slave had actually received 40 acres and a mule. Then my White conscience might be able to get away with thinking: They had a chance to be just like us, or what more do they want?, or my White conscience’s personal favorite: My ancestors came here with nothing. Of course, those justifications cower when they come face to face with the monster that is structural racism.

Ibram X. Kendi, director and founder of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, historian, and author of the mind-bending bestseller How to Be an Antiracist, says: “The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a ‘race-neutral’ one.” He urges his readers, Black and White, to be antiracist, rather than non-racist. “[A]s with ‘not racist,’ the color-blind individual, by ostensibly failing to see race, fails to see racism and falls into racist passivity.”

“An antiracist is someone who is supporting antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Kendi says you have to work at being an antiracist like you have to work at overcoming an addiction. “To be antiracists is a radical choice in the face of history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.” We all must “knowingly strive to be antiracist.” It is not enough to say, “I am not racist,” or “I don’t care what color someone’s skin is.” Those attitudes are—my attitude has been—harmful because it is an attempt to abnegate personal responsibility for the structural racism our history and society have created.

I truly believe in my heart that I harbor no ill will toward anyone based on their race or country of origin, but Kendi has made me realize that what I believe is not enough. I have to do something about racism. Passivity feeds racism. Antiracism is my personal responsibility, and it is time to do something radical.

We all must “knowingly strive to be antiracist.” It is not enough to say, “I am not racist,” or “I don’t care what color someone’s skin is.” Those attitudes are—my attitude has been—harmful because it is an attempt to abnegate personal responsibility for the structural racism our history and society have created.

We have all been parties to racial inequality—even nice, liberal people. For a succinct history of how our government gave advantages to those of European descent and affirmatively held back Black Americans, read ”Reparations Need to Be Part of the Conversation about Racial Justice” by Nichole Nelson in the Washington Post (June 29, 2020). Racist policies and laws have explicitly and implicitly deprived Black people of the opportunity to build wealth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Black Americans’ household income is 30 percent less than that of White, non-Hispanic households. The typical White family has a net worth ten times greater than a typical Black family.

Economists Darrick Hamilton and William A. Darity Jr. wrote in an article for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review:

[W]ealth is iterative: It provides people with the necessary initial capital to purchase an appreciating asset, which in turn generates more and more wealth, and can be passed from one generation to the next.

They found that race is a stronger prediction of wealth than class. Shockingly, they cite numerous academic studies, going all the way back to Milton Friedman in 1957, that conclude this disparity is due to differences in intelligence and diligence among the races. How could academic journals print articles like that? The answer is easy: structural racism. For example, they cite a 2015 study that attributed the wealth gap to Blacks’ and Latinos’ investing in “low-return” assets like housing instead of “a more diverse asset portfolio.” Did the author of that study mean to say that poor people were better off investing in the stock market than putting a roof over the heads of their families?

Hamilton and Darity conclude:

[I]nheritance, bequest, and in vivo transfer account for more of the racial wealth gap than any other behavioral, demographic, or socioeconomic indicator. Access to this non-merit-based seed money is not based on some action or inaction on the part of the individual, but rather the familial position into which they are born.

Furthermore, Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, defines White privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets.” Inherited assets are a conspicuous example of “unearned assets.” History proves that Whites have overwhelmingly benefited from inherited assets.

Black Lives Matter protest in Manchester, UK, June 2020. © Henry Ravenscroft/Unsplash.

I am an estate planning attorney and a baby boomer. By 2030, some experts have calculated that the baby-boomer generation might leave their millennial heirs as much as $68 trillion. Even if that estimate is wrong by half, it will represent one of the greatest wealth transfers ever, akin to Genghis Khan splitting his empire between his four sons. However, that flood of wealth will not be distributed equally. Most of the wealth transfer will go from the top tier to their well-educated, successful, adult offspring.

I have worked with many nice people to help them establish a plan for the future, and I know that people have an almost instinctive need to leave their heirs whatever they have accumulated in their lives, even if their bequest will be excess wealth to their heirs. When I ask—and I always do—“Would you like to leave something to charity?” with rare exceptions that usually include my Quaker friends, the clients purse their lips, seeming uncomfortable that I asked, and shake their heads no. Even the Quakers want to leave a legacy mostly to the “family” of Quaker organizations and even then it’s usually only a small percentage of their total estates. I know how radical my proposal below will seem; it was hard for me to accept.

My radical proposal to address reparations for slavery and discrimination is to leave most or all of your estate to organizations that directly promote racial equality and justice rather than to your well-educated, successful, adult offspring.

I devoted 18 years to raising my son which I know resulted in his being the healthy, intelligent, educated, and happy man he is today. He graduated from college with no debt. He makes more than a “good” living, as does his accomplished wife. They live in a beautiful home, and their children will go to excellent schools. I am confident I have done the best I could for him. The money in my estate will not be life-altering for him; it would be excess wealth.

However, if I give most of my estate to organizations that directly benefit Black people and causes, my money could substantially change many lives. If thousands and thousands of us did it, reparations would happen without the need for public debate or a political movement or a congressional vote. It would be a matter of personal responsibility.

My radical proposal to address reparations for slavery and discrimination is to leave most or all of your estate to organizations that directly promote racial equality and justice rather than to your well-educated, successful, adult offspring.

So where should you leave your money? My advice is to pick an area of particular interest to you. For me, that is education and justice. I chose the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, where a $50,000 bequest could allow a Black student to graduate from college with no debt, like my son did. I will also support the Innocence Project, which uses DNA to exonerate the unjustly convicted, a process that can cost more than $5,000 and often thousands more. Please note that, of the first 367 people freed by the Innocence Project, 61 percent were African American, who make up only 13 percent of the total U.S. population. A $20,000 bequest could help to free an innocent person who might be on death row. How many innocents could $100,000 free?

Below is a partial list of other organizations that address racial inequity:

  • Southern Poverty Law Center
  • Equal Justice Initiative
  • Black Women’s Health Imperative
  • the Black Political Empowerment Project
  • a Black church in your community

There are many reputable organizations; I suggest you do your own research before choosing one. Or you might even know a Black family that might benefit from your legacy more than your heirs. If you would like to leave something for your grandchildren’s education, you can set up a trust that pays their education expenses until a certain age and then the residue to a Black cause. If you have a spouse or disabled child, you can put money in a lifetime trust with the residue going to a Black charity.

Many people would rather give to a qualified charity than to the government. Since the economic collapse and bailouts, most tax experts think that the huge federal estate tax exemption allowed under the 2017 tax act is going to decrease substantially. If you live in a state with its own estate or inheritance tax, the rate on excess wealth will be even greater than the federal rate of 40 percent. Consult with your tax advisor and a lawyer about this.

If hiring a lawyer right now is not appealing, consider giving your IRA or other qualified retirement plan to a Black charity. On January 1, 2020, Congress took away much of the tax advantage of leaving your heirs a qualified retirement plan. Instead of taking out an amount based on the beneficiary’s life, all of it must be paid out within ten years and then taxed on top of the beneficiary’s income. If you have successful children, the top rate could be almost 40 percent plus state income taxes. But any amount given directly to a qualified charity reduces the size of your overall estate, and thus estate tax, and the charity pays no income tax on it, so the gift is worth more. This simple change does not require a lawyer; just change your beneficiary designation form for the accounts. You also don’t need a lawyer to change the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. Be sure to list the correct name and tax ID for the charity.

If you are fortunate enough to have a nest egg, by all means, use it to take care of yourself and enjoy the rewards of your hard work. If your family genuinely needs your legacy, take care of them, but for those of us who have raised successful children, consider leaving that nest egg to Black causes that work toward equity and justice, and give those who have been victims of structural racism some of the advantages your children received.

Black Lives Matter protest in New York, N.Y., June 6, 2020. © Life Matters/Pexels.

I never talked to my son when he was growing up about racism because racism was not a daily part of our privileged suburban life. He did invite the only two Black boys in his school to his ninth birthday party, and he is still friends with the first friend he made in college, who had a Haitian father. I thought that I had done a good job—and I did—at raising a non-racist child. I now know that is not enough. I should have raised an antiracist one.

The lasting legacy I hope I have given my son is that love is everything and that he has an obligation to help those less fortunate than he. When he was young and figured out that he was smarter than most people, I said to him, “God gave you those brains, and someday He is going to ask for something in return.” It was my first lesson to him about grace versus justice. The money I am leaving to help pay just reparations is part of my thanks to God for gracing me with a wonderful son.

So, okay, boomer, what are you willing to do to be antiracist? I read a suggestion in Friends Journal several years ago that, for most of us, our heirs would not miss 10 percent if we left it to a Quaker cause. But the radical, antiracist question to ask yourself is what difference would 50 percent, 75 percent, or 90 percent of my estate make in the lives of those who have been denied equal opportunity for 400 years?

Zona Douthit

Zona Douthit is a member of Providence (R.I.) Meeting and an attorney-at-law.

18 thoughts on “Okay, Boomer, It’s Time to Fund Reparations

    1. Janet, the author is a Baby Boomer talking to peers.

      Also, your comment is a polite way of saying, “I will only be anti-racist if the people I oppress are nice to me.” That is not an actually anti-racist action.

  1. Thank you, Friend Zona. Your call to action is a strong and vital one.

    Time to chat with my wife about how we structure our (first) wills. (I’m in my 30s with no kids. Wills are coming as the next good legal step.)

  2. How can we be anti-racist when we continue to define humans by the color of their skin. I agree with the notion of leaving a legacy to those who need it most. I’m wondering whether God would see a difference in paying tuition for a child of a poor immigrant from Iraq or a poor American citizen. The goal is noble. How is suggesting that leaving “excess wealth” to a person of a particular skin color or an organization which only supports those people not racist?

    1. Concur wholeheartedly. Nothing is suddenly (and conveniently) different just because it is an election year. Systemic racism is different than racism. The former is a rather dogmatic (and rude?) political statement. The latter is simply a little piece of everyone….everyone. If someone is a mutt they will very likely get left out of any reparations….yet they represent the offspring of parents and grandparents who seemingly care little about color or ethnicity

    2. Donald, Consider that you can believe that the differences of “race” are false- but the harm done by those structures now, and continuing, are real.

      Deconstructing “race” can only be done after we level the playing field because to deconstruct it right now, means we won’t have a measure for what we still need to correct. We would lose the language to continue to ferret out where racism is actively occurring.

      Colorblindedness currently benefits oppressors, not the oppressed. When we in the past have made programs to help those left behind, like affirmative action- guess who benefitted most? White women. And this is no accident. When people are given the choice to help “any” with less, they inevitably pick the person who is closest to them based on their own set of biases or routine contact.

      This can be something they don’t even realize they are doing. We see this with college scholarships too- they are more likely to go to an impoverished white than an equally impoverished black student- usually based on some “soft skill” or feeling about an essay. It feels more relatable, more authentic because it’s closer to our worldview- thus we’ll choose to focus there.

      If we really want to undo the damage here, we should work from a perspective of who has been marginalized the longest and work our way back. You’ll never go wrong by putting your focus squarely on the most marginalized.

      In the USA, that would put our efforts squarely on black folks, who were treated and in many cases continue to be treated as less than fully human and indigenous populations who experienced genocide and continue to suffer cultural genocide by the practices of this nation. We need to then measure the impact- figure out if we have then leveled the playing field and not just paid lip service to it. Then we’ll know when to redirect our focus and/or dismantle “race” as a construct.

    3. Donald, I used to think that being color-blind was the righteous thing to do, until I read Ibrahim Kendi’s book. Just because well-meaning White folk want everyone to be equal doesn’t make it so.

  3. Zona, I appreciate what you are saying here and yes I think it could be a great help, but also:

    If you currently live with some excess wealth, you shouldn’t wait to die to do this work. There are people who are impacted now that won’t live to see the benefits of your will. Consider, if you have excess, a sort of tithe.

    1. PD, I agree. Help as much and as often as you can. By excess wealth, I was referring to creating it in the next generation. As an estate planning lawyer, I know that most people want to make sure they have enough to take care of themselves, and they earned it. It’s unearned excess wealth I am addressing here.

  4. What about those of us who in their lifetimes already are sustaining contributors to Innocence Project, Southern Poverty Law Center, Equal Justice Initiative. Why should Friends wait until they die. Tithe now. The money goes further than after ten or twenty years of inflation. It’s easy to give when the giving doesn’t come out of your pocket now.

  5. This is a very powerful challenge. I like the idea of giving each of us individually the opportunity and responsibility to address this inequity. We cannot depend upon our elected officials to do the right thing. That should not stop us.

  6. Yes I would like to strike the use of Okay, Boomer. It is a putdown and not well served in a Quaker publication. While many of these ideas are very good, I have a problem with any discussion of reparations that does not include our first peoples. Not sure why the UNCF was not mentioned but the American Indian College Fund is equally deserving. Our Jamaican/American, Haitian/American, Dominican/American, Brazilian/American, Cuban/American brothers and sisters deserve our supportas well as their enslaved ancestors enriched this country in the evil triangle trade. People might consider a donation to a school like CUNY’s Medgar Evers College with 53.4% students who are Black or African American Female, 21.8% Black or African American Male and 11.8% Hispanic or Latino Female. Most common majors are biological sciences, psychology and business. That’s truly reparations in action.

    1. My point in using “Okay, Boomer” was to get your attention and set the stage for suggesting something that might make many people uncomfortable and to turn the “put-down” into something positive. Let’s be the generation that pays for reparations.
      By all means, donate where you think it will do the most good. If you have raised a child or children who are dedicating their lives to social justice issues and not making enough money to ever buy a home of their own, give it to them. I am suggesting not creating excess wealth in the next generation(s).

  7. My meeting is poor financially. We also have a long way to go toward being antiracist. Some will have money to leave to others when they die, but not many will not have much. For years, I have needed to live partially on money left to me by relatives who died. But my heart swelled at our last business meeting when we chose a kind of reparations as the bulk of what we spent our money on. It was not reparations for slavery, but rather for the land taken from indigenous people. Thank you for your proposal. We all need to search our hearts for ways to live and die according to the best we know rather than just what is popular or the path of least resistance.

    1. Mark 12: 41-44 And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.”

      Here is the real lesson. I am sorry I don’t have the courage to follow the Widow’s example.

  8. Thank you for stating this challenge so clearly. Your comments on excess wealth give the lie to all of us who persist in thinking that on some level, we (or our ancestors) did it ourselves.
    “[W]ealth is iterative: It provides people with the necessary initial capital to purchase an appreciating asset, which in turn generates more and more wealth, and can be passed from one generation to the next.”

    Thank you for the concrete suggestions.

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