What Is Owed: The Limits of Darity and Mullen's Case For Reparations

tags: slavery, racism, African American history, book reviews, reparations

William P. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and the author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.



Reparations are having a moment. This march, Evanston, Ill., became the first government in the United States to attempt to address racial inequality by providing mortgage assistance and $25,000 homeownership and improvement grants to descendants of residents harmed by discriminatory housing policies in the city. Soon afterward, the US House of Representatives began hearings on HR 40, which would create a commission to study reparations for slavery and other forms of discrimination against Black people in the United States. President Biden expressed support for the study and reiterated that support at the commemoration of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., in May. Meanwhile, California became the first state to initiate an official task force to study and develop a reparations plan for African Americans harmed by slavery and its legacies.

Bolstered by the Black Lives Matter movement and last summer’s protests following the murder of George Floyd, support for reparations has also been aided by a growing awareness of the history of slavery and other forms of racial exploitation in the United States. In the past decade, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and other Black journalists have exposed a broad readership to the question of reparations as well as to the scholarship on slavery’s importance in the development of capitalism and American democracy, the racial inequalities inherent to New Deal social policies, and the causes and effects of mass incarceration. By doing so, they helped shift the discussion about racial inequality from a question of marginalization and oppression to a focus on the central role that Black people have played in the economic and political history of the United States. Despite the increasing awareness of this history, however, nearly two-thirds of Americans still oppose federal payments to Black people whose ancestors were enslaved. Opposition is strongest among Republicans, who view reparations as overly divisive and unjustified, but barely half of all Democrats, and only a third of white Democrats, support them.

In From Here to Equality, William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen draw on both journalistic and scholarly sources to make a strong case for cash payments to Black descendants of slaves. To those who dismiss reparations as a recent claim for an ancient crime, they point out that African Americans have been demanding compensation since the end of slavery and that the debt has been redoubled by officially sanctioned violence and discrimination since abolition. Likewise, to the “alarmingly large numbers of Americans, both white and black, who do not believe that racial inequality and discrimination continue to exist,” Darity and Mullen provide a detailed analysis of the deep disparities in wealth, income, education, and other measures of well-being that have persisted since emancipation.

Yet despite their clear evidence of the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow, Darity and Mullen isolate African American reparations from claims for compensation by Native Americans, immigrants, and others. Not only does this risk alienating potential allies, it also narrows the scope of what the Black freedom movement has almost always pursued: A radical program for economic and racial justice for all Americans.


The detailed history Darity and Mullen present supports the moral and economic claims for reparations. Yet given the persistent opposition, it is puzzling that they describe the potential constituency for reparations in the narrowest possible terms. In written testimony submitted to a congressional hearing on HR 40, Darity suggested that the bill be amended to clarify that it would benefit only people who identify as “black, Negro, or African American” and have “at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States.” Acknowledging that this excludes “post-slavery immigrants” from Africa and the Caribbean, “whose own ancestors are likely to have been subjected to enslavement and colonialism elsewhere,” he suggested they could make their claims against the United Kingdom or France, but not the United States.

In addition to alienating potential allies, the exclusion of Black immigrants from reparations obscures not only the consequences of racism and segregation in the aftermath of emancipation but also the inherently international character of slavery and the inequalities it forged. The scholarship that Darity and Mullen draw on emphasizes the centrality of racial exploitation to the development of the United States, but it also demonstrates that the national story was, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, “but a local phase of a world problem.”

The historian Ana Lucia Araujo, in her “transnational and comparative history” Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade, shows that the demand for compensation in the United States has always been related to reparations movements in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. That tradition is carried on today by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, which links demands on the US government with a transnational movement seeking reparations for people of African descent.

Read entire article at The Nation

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