The Black Reparations Project  | edited by William Darity, A. Kirsten Mullen, and Lucas Hubbard | University of California Press  |  May 23

The Black Reparations Project isn’t an easy read, but it definitely belongs on bedside tables. This collection of essays—edited by Chapel Hill writer A. Kirsten Mullen and Duke economists William Darity Jr. and Lucas Hubbard, with contributions by scholars on the subject—not only presents a persuasive argument for why Americans should make amends to the descendants of slaves but also gives a detailed technical framework on how to do it.

The book, subtitled “A Handbook for Racial Justice,” is a comprehensive follow-up to Mullen and Darity’s award-winning work From Here to Equality, originally published in 2020.

It’s a must-read for local, state, and federal politicians; college students studying social justice; and pretty much every American who has ever thought, “Reparations? That’ll never happen.”

With The Black Reparations Project, Mullen, Darity, and Hubbard don’t cater to people who already agree with them. Instead, they use the 200-some pages to outline concrete evidence of how the policies of the federal government have formalized discrimination, keeping Black Americans at the bottom of the economic ladder. The government is directly responsible for creating the Black-white wealth gap, they argue; therefore it can and should be the institution to fix it.

“The federal government has sanctioned a past and present of American white supremacy,” the editors write in the opening chapter. “Therefore, the federal government bears the responsibility for the act of redress.”

The idea of reparations for slaves and their descendants has been around since the Civil War. Various plans, starting with the famous “40 acres and a mule” decree, have been launched and then abandoned.

During the 2020 presidential election, the idea of making reparations was revived by various Democratic candidates, sparking new energy around the subject. Mullen, Darity, and Hubbard argue that we must take advantage of that political energy to advance reparations before Black Americans are forced to endure yet another century of injustice.

The Black Reparations Project starts by making the case for reparations. The editors recap a series of laws, from 1861 to the present, that have kept slaves and their descendants from upward economic mobility. Some of these laws might be familiar to readers—school segregation, the post–World War II G.I. Bill, and housing discrimination by the federal government, banks, and insurance companies.

Other historical facts, however, may come as a surprise. Like the fact that while former slaves were denied their 40 acres, millions of white Americans received 160 acres through the 1862 Homestead Act. Or the fact that white terrorists, starting after the Civil War, not only lynched and massacred Black Americans but also seized their property and destroyed booming Black business districts. And how, decades later, the construction of highways carved through vibrant Black neighborhoods, destroying “black prosperity and community stability,” the editors write.

Additional chapters on housing, education, and health care only strengthen the argument for reparations, exploring details of American history many readers may be ignorant of. In one particularly compelling illustration, the book details how, in the early 1900s, five of seven Black medical schools across the country were shut down, leaving the United States with a deficit of 30,000 Black physicians, according to a chapter written by Duke medical professor Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards.

One of the most interesting chapters, however, looks at how the amount of money due to the descendants of slaves should be calculated. In this chapter, six authors examine the cost of discrimination across U.S. history and propose formulas that can be used to quantify that cost. And it’s clear, by the end, that a $14.7 trillion payment—the amount the editors estimate it would take to close the racial wealth gap—would be letting America off easy.

Between the cost of slavery itself (including lost wages and compensation for pain and suffering) and the cost of discrimination (including lost economic opportunities and the reduced value of Black labor) reparationists can easily argue that the African American community is due between $55 trillion and $24 quadrillion—a calculation made using conservative estimates and interest rates. By the end of the book, the conclusion is that payment of nearly $15 trillion is, literally, the bare minimum for reparative justice.

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