Gray Areas Matter: Reparations

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The early American economy, and the foundation for modern American life, was built in large part on the backs of African slaves. Today, there still exists a sizeable wealth gap in the U.S. between white families and black families. According to the Federal Reserve’s data, the median net worth of a black family in the U.S. is $17,600, compared to $171,000 of a white family. The problem now is finding the best way to correct this disparity. One potential solution has recently garnered serious national attention, especially among Democratsreparations. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at reparations, their function and feasibility, and the role of economics in healing America’s racial divide.

William Darity, a professor of economics at Duke University, proposed two qualifications to receive reparations, according to The New York Times: “having at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States, and having identified oneself as African-American on a legal document for at least a decade before the approval of any reparations.” 

While seemingly intuitive, opponents of the reparation movement claim that Darity’s approach unduly separates the plights of descendants of slaves from those of other black Americans, whose ancestors voluntarily immigrated to the U.S. but still suffered under oppressive structures such as Jim Crow laws. Even though Darity acknowledges that more recent black immigrants have been the recipients of heavy prejudice, he still believes that because the majority of black immigrants chose to come to the U.S. after the 1960’s civil rights movement, and they are not entitled to the same reparations as those brought here in chains.

The exact cost of reparations is also difficult to pin down. Depending on which scholar you source and whichever method of calculation they enlist, you will typically find numbers anywhere from $500 billion to $2.6 trillion, but outliers exist in both directions. Despite the large range of suggested figures, the actual amount that will be paid is less of a point of concern for most — where the money will come from is of more concern.

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Most economists agree that any federal program that doles out the kind of cash referenced above would certainly either incur massive debt (consider that the federal government’s 2019 budget was about $4.4 trillion for perspective) or huge tax hikes. Either way, that burden would probably fall on the middle class taxpayers and has potential to even be avoided by the upper class financial powerhouses of this country that benefit the most from America’s economy founded on slavery.

The issues of who, how much, from where and how are all difficult questions to answer. Scholars across the country have struggled to design a hard policy road map that the American people are actually willing to get behind. After all, this is an extraordinarily complicated issue with a great number of pains and concerns for all involved. Reparations are America’s next big test. I believe that this reality will be reflected in 2020 as Democratic candidates battle to win over the American people and propel this country down a path of healing and forgiveness.

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