Duke University economist William “Sandy” Darity has been the nation’s leading proponent of reparations for African Americans.

In 2020, Darity with his wife, Kirsten Mullen, co-authored From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century. The exhaustively researched volume moved Darity to the front of the national reparations debate, and makes a compelling argument in favor of federal compensation for the descendants of enslaved people. In 2005, Darity, who is Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, pioneered the subfield of stratification economics—the study of how disparity and inequality is used by dominant groups to maintain economic and social power.

In a paper he authored, Position and Possessions: Stratification Economics and Intergroup Inequality, that was published last week by the Journal of Economic Literature, Darity asserts that dominant economic groups across the global spectrum have a “collective self-interest [that] centers on advancing or maintaining the status of one’s social group in comparison with another or others that are situationally relevant.”

Darity notes at the beginning of his 27-page paper that he wants “to perform bypass surgery on the argument that groups in a subordinate position on the socio-economic ladder are so ranked because of their own deficiencies or self-defeating behavior,” indeed that the economic status of Black folks, Indigenous populations, people of color and women “are due to [their own] defective cultural habits and practices.”

Darity says he wanted to circumvent that premise by explaining that cultural differences are not the fundamental cause of the separation. 

Indeed, when it comes to the uneven intergenerational transmission of resources and advantage across social groups, “exploitation is the fundamental cause,” he says in the scholarly work published on July 1.

Darity takes aim at those who insist that inequality will decline, “markedly,” if  members of a subordinate group—like Black people who are shot and killed by police during a traffic stop—simply “do the right thing.” 

Members of a subordinate group, the economic scholar says, “can do all ‘the right things’—attain higher education and be highly motivated, hardworking, and frugal—and still not receive the level of rewards received by similarly accomplished members of a dominant group.”

Darity explains the theoretical framework of stratification economics “is applicable to all societies and at multiple levels of inequality.”

Darity says that the theoretical frame can be coupled with “last-place aversion,” which he explains is “the strong preference to avoid being at the bottom rung of a social ladder,” and an intense desire “to at least maintain and, if possible, improve one’s ranking.”

Darity is among a cadre of scholars who assert that since America’s founding, whites have historically supported candidates and policies in favor of perceived racial interests above their own economic interests.

“Over and over again, whites have shown a willingness to support the most brutal forms of racial oppression (or ignore them) while proudly calling themselves freedom-loving Christians. Our nation’s perpetual civil war rages on,” Michelle Alexander, the legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow, wrote in a 2018 edition of Derrick Bell’s Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence of Racism.

Darity’s scholarly framework is in concert with an observation by former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Similarly, Bell, a legal scholar and Critical Race Theory pioneer, pointed out is his landmark 1992 volume, Faces At The Bottom Of The Well, that before the Civil War, “rich slave owners persuaded the white working class to stand with them against the danger of slave revolts—even though the existence of slavery condemned white workers to a life of economic privatation.”

Darity says that members of the dominant group have a “fictive kinship,” along with the sense of a “shared” or “linked fate.” That helps to explain white nationalists’ so-called “replacement theory,” which holds that the world’s white populations are being culturally and numerically replaced by people of color, as a consequence of mass migration, the demographic growth of non-whites, and a corresponding drop in white birth rates.

A 2015 US Census Bureau report projected that by 2044, whites will no longer be the majority population in America, and by 2060, nearly one in five of the nation’s total population are projected to be foreign-born. 

Darity’s research, in the face of the country’s ongoing, seismic political shift, indicates tribalism is powerful, and counterproductive. 

The ongoing protests about the US Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade is led by white women. But Darity points to the irony of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, when white women who voted “apparently gave their racial identity pride of place over their gender identity.”

“The majority of them—53 percent—disregarded the common needs of women and went against a fellow white woman to vote with their power trait, rather than help an experienced woman, and themselves, make history,” Darity says about Hilary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016.

The Duke economist cites political scientist Ashley Jardin, who in 2020 observed, “Trump was ushered into office by whites concerned about their status. 

“This was true for both white women and men,” Jardin added. “Although Trump did not prevail, his share of the ballots cast by white women voters was higher in 2020 than in 2016.”

Darity says the same desire among some whites to maintain their dominant status also fueled the attempted coup by members of America’s white nationalist movement, whose members, garbed in symbols of a traitorous Confederacy, attacked the US Capitol on January 6, “also involved high levels of participation by white women.”

Darity, while pondering the puzzling, tenacious staying power of race prejudice, says the puzzle can be resolved by recognizing the central point of racism: the redistribution of resources from the subordinate group to the dominant group, “while preserving and extending the latter’s relative advantage.”

Furthermore, even if a greater degree of equality is achieved that raises all boats in society, and leads to a higher average level of national income, Darity says if that economic parity means a reduction in the dominant group’s share, “stratification economics predicts they will prefer to maintain the lower, albeit positive, growth rate status quo.”

Racism and bigotry are not happenstance.

“Race (or ethnic or religious or class) prejudice is not an arbitrary taste, nor a matter of whim or ignorance, nor an atavistic throwback to a more primitive or backward stage of human civilization,” Darity says. “Race prejudice is instrumental for the promotion and perpetuation of dominance of one group over another; it is purposive and functional.”

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