When the William T. Grant Foundation announced last month that it had awarded a $300,000 grant to the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University to research the feasibility of paying reparations to Black American descendants of enslaved persons, William Darity, Jr. was elated. 

William A. Darity, Jr.

Darity, a Duke economist who will lead the research project, told the INDY that the commitment of a major philanthropist to support such research was “a signal moment.”

As director of the Cook Center, he is widely considered one of the nation’s leading scholars on the issue of reparations.

“This is unprecedented and very encouraging,” Darity wrote in an email to the INDY about the project, “Making Black Reparations in America.” 

Dating back to Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15 in 1865, which authorized confiscated land and land abandoned by Confederates to be redistributed to freedmen, there have been discussions surrounding reparations as an ultimate acknowledgment of slavery and how the savage, arrogant, and barbaric crime enriched white men and turned America into a superpower.

But a legacy of vociferous and negative responses to Black reparations has resulted.

 “The fact [is] that the claim for redress for Black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States has not been met for 156 years,” Darity told the INDY. “[The] failure to provide the formerly enslaved with the promised 40 acre land grants at the end of the Civil War suggests that anti-racism must lie at the heart of the persistent resistance to meet the reparations bill.” 

By “bill,” Darity means the amount owed in reparations to the descendants of slavery.

But the Grant Foundation-financed project comes “amid increased interest in reparations as a mechanism to reduce racial inequality,” according to a foundation press release.

While polls in recent years have shown that most Americans oppose cash reparations, support is trending upward. Foundation officials noted that more than half of Americans would favor a congressional commission to study the legacy of slavery and ongoing systemic racism directed at Black Americans.

That sustained anti-Black racism is a consequence of the nation’s failure to hold slaveholding secessionists accountable by treating the Confederate war on the Union as an act of treason, Darity says. He connects the Confederacy to the attempted coup in the nation’s capital on January 6 as running “in a straight line.”

While the foundation noted in the release that the full toll of slavery was “immeasurable,” officials point to one metric as proof of the fallout: the racial wealth gap.

Black Americans account for nearly 13 percent of the nation’s population, but they hold less than three percent of the nation’s wealth. Moreover, the average level of Black family wealth is $850,000 less than that of the average white family, Darity says. 

Foundation officials say the wealth gap serves as “a critical index of the cumulative effects, across generations, of racial injustice in the United States.”

“Research is clear that the disadvantages faced by Black children and youth substantially reflect the unequal transmission of wealth across generations, which is rooted in slavery and continues through systemic racism into our own day,” Foundation President Adam Gamoran said in the release. “Reparations to descendants of enslaved persons has the potential to address the structural foundations of racial inequality, and as a potential national policy, it calls for rigorous scientific inquiry to address questions of feasibility and practicality.”

Darity says grassroots activism has aided growing interest and support for reparations; receptiveness among several 2020 presidential candidates; and the events of 2020, particularly the murder of George Floyd, “led, finally, to widespread acknowledgment that there is systemic and continuous anti-black violence in the United States.” 

Darity and Duke economist Lisa A. Gennetian will be joined by a team of researchers who will conduct a series of “macro-simulation exercises” to investigate the effects of different configurations of Black reparations, to gauge the impact on the economic well-being of Black children and their families, but also the economy-wide ramifications for all Americans. Foundation officials say the scientific work includes four engagement activities that will enable the team to share their findings with research audiences and the broader public.

Darity says the simulation exercises are an important part of the research supported by the grant but can’t yet share them publicly. 

In the book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, Darity and co-author A. Kirsten Mullen propose a range of payment options to eliminate the racial wealth gap based on unpaid wages, the purchase prices of human property, and the land promised to the freedman. 

The book points to the words of Judah P. Benjamin, a member of Jefferson Davis’s Confederate cabinet, who in 1860 said, “our slaves . . . directly or indirectly involve a value of four thousand million dollars.”

Darity and Mullen point out in From Here to Equality that as of 2019, $4 billion compounds to $2 trillion at 4 percent interest, to $9.3 trillion at 5 percent, and to $42.3 trillion at 6 percent. A reparations program based on the broken promise of “40 acres of tillable ground” could result in financial payments of $267,000 per person for 40 million Black descendants of American slavery.

The literal promised land for freedmen covered three states that stretched across the coast of South Carolina and extended through Georgia, down into the northern portions of Florida.

For Black Americans, it was yet another promise unkept. Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson ordered the land allocated under Special Field Orders No. 15  to be restored to the former slaveholders. 

During a June appearance on CBS Sunday Morning, Darity noted that it would cost $11-$12 trillion to finance reparations, more than twice the federal budget, CBS Sunday journalist Mark Whitaker noted. Whitaker also pointed to a University of Massachusetts Amherst/WCVB poll in the spring that indicated two-thirds of Americans are against government reparations.

Undeterred, Darity points to one of the hypotheses of his research into the feasibility of paying reparations to Black Americans: “[If] a reparations plan closed the Black-white wealth gap it would contribute to a higher rate of growth for the U.S. economy as a whole.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly interpreted Darity’s reference to a “reparations bill” to mean House Bill 40, a congressional bill that seeks to form a commission to study the issue of reparations. The story has been updated to clarify that Darity used the word “bill” to mean the monetary amount owed to descendants of slavery. 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.