Conversations We Are Not Having: Black Reparations is About Much More Than Slavery
By: William Darity Jr., Duke University
The excellent recent article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic has rejuvenated the national conversation over reparations for black Americans. One of the most impressive aspects of Coates’ article is his emphasis on events and conditions during the 20th century as the basis for black reparations. Coates gives special attention to the contract buying scam that enabled white realtors to defraud thousands of black families of homes they were led to believe that they owned. Coates’ focus on indignities and deprivations heaped upon black folk after slavery had ended parallels my own emphasis on post –slavery deprivations; one example is my discussion in an article coauthored with Dania Frank that first appeared in the American Economic Review in 2003.
Indeed, the scope of atrocities and denigrations inflicted on black Americans in the post-slavery period is sufficient to make a case for reparations on their own.
The (incomplete) catalogue of damages listed below is grim and extensive:
- In the aftermath of the Civil War, a white terror campaign that included assassinations of black elected officials, freedmen and their allies throughout the South prevented blacks from exercising their right to vote.
- By 1880 the extension of a regime of legal segregation – the Jim Crow regime –spread across the South and parts of the North, a system of apartheid that was not deemed illegal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Massacres of blacks occurred on multiple occasions aimed at political intimidation and elimination of affluent black communities. Among the very earliest were the attacks conducted by the White League in Colfax (1873) and Coushatta (1874) in Louisiana. The white riot in Danville, Virginia took place in 1883, followed by one of the most violent and destructive, the white riot in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898). Historian Gregory Mixon has demonstrated that white supremacists who fomented the Atlanta riot of 1906 consciously patterned their vigilante violence after the Wilmington riot. The 1921 Tulsa massacre destroyed the prosperous black Greenwood community and included the dropping of incendiary devices on black homes and businesses from airplanes. The massacre depicted in the film Rosewood in 1923, but Rosewood was only one of many in bloody, bloody Florida throughout the first two decades of the 20th century (see Paul Ortiz’s Emancipation Betrayed and Marvin Dunn’s The Beast in Florida).
- Separate and unequal schools for black students were maintained legally until the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision in 1954. Generally, it still was not until another 15 years later that school desegregation was implemented on a widespread basis across the South. Even then the desegregation of schools at the facility level often was replaced by within school segregation with black students disproportionately confined to less challenging courses of study via racialized tracking.
- America in the 20th century was characterized by a long and extensive lynching trail — extra-legal executions of blacks. This type of white violence, both latent and blatant, was a central theme of the film The Great Debaters. The murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are examples demonstrating that black lynchings continue in the 21st century.
- Opponents of black reparations frequently whine that blacks already have received reparations in the form of social programs like the welfare system. Ironically, when those social programs were first introduced in the 1930s they were designed explicitly to exclude blacks from their benefits. Blacks did not get full access to the nation’s social safety net until 1965, being deprived of the benefits for three decades.
- Significant wage and employment discrimination against blacks persists to the current moment. An indicator of the magnitude of employment discrimination in the US is the fact that blacks with some college education and/or an associate’s degree have a higher unemployment rate than whites of a comparable age who never finished high school. Indeed, at each level of educational attainment the black rate is twice as high as the white rate.
- Police harassment and violence long has been disproportionately directed against blacks. The system of justice is a major agent of injustice toward blacks.
- Because of the deprivation of the capacity to accumulate wealth in past generations, blacks suffer wide gaps in wealth relative to whites. A recent report on the racial wealth gap, to which I contributed, demonstrates that the median net worth of black households ( $7113) was a mere 1/15 of the median net worth of white households ( $111,740) in 2011.
Slavery in the United States produced the conditions that marked black people as objects of scorn, derision, and abuse. But there is a full account of atrocities after slavery that merit redress.