The writer: Doug Criss
Date first published: 15 April 2015
How do you put a cash value on hundreds of years of forced servitude?
This may be the most contested part. Academics, lawyers and activists have given it a shot, though, and their results vary.
Most formulations have produced numbers from as low as $17 billion to as high as almost $5 trillion.
The most often-quoted figure, though, is truly staggering, as anthropologist and author Jason Hickel notes in his 2018 book, “The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets”:
“It is estimated that the United States alone benefited from a total of 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and the abolition of slavery in 1865. Valued at the US minimum wage, with a modest rate of interest, that is worth $97 trillion today.”
Keep in mind, the total US federal budget for fiscal year 2018 was $4.1 trillion.
Other formulations are more modest, like a 2015 report by University of Connecticut assistant professor Thomas Craemer. He estimated that the labor of slaves was worth at least $5.9 trillion and perhaps as much as $14.2 trillion (in 2009 dollars). Craemer came up with that figure by estimating the monetary value of slaves over time, the total number of hours they worked and the wages at which that work should have been compensated.
Craemer’s number is also lower because he only deals with the slavery that happened from the time of the country’s founding until the end of the Civil War, so it ignores slavery during the colonial period and the discrimination that blacks endured during the Jim Crow era.
Where would the money come from?
Generally, advocates for reparations say that three different groups should pay for them: governments, private companies and rich families that owe a good portion of their wealth to slavery.
It makes sense that federal and state governments (which enshrined, supported and protected the institution of slavery) and private businesses(which financially benefited from it), would be tempting targets from which reparations could be extracted. But wealthy families?
“There are huge, wealthy families in the South today that once owned a lot of slaves. You can trace all their wealth to the free labor of black folks. So when you identify the defendants, there are a vast number of individuals,” attorney Willie E. Gary told Harper’s magazine in November 2000, during the height of the last, big time of reparations talk. Gray was talking about how these families could be sued for reparations since they benefited directly from slavery.
As you might imagine, suing large groups of people to pay for reparations wouldn’t go over well. Others have suggested lawmakers could pass legislation to force families to pay up. But that might not be constitutionally sound.
“I don’t think you can legislate and have those families pay,” Malik Edwards, a law professor at North Carolina Central University, told CNN. “If you’re going to go after individuals you’d have to come up with a theory to do it through litigation. At least on the federal level Congress doesn’t have the power to go after these folks. It just doesn’t fall within its Commerce Clause powers.”
The Commerce Clause refers to the section of the US Constitution which gives Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states.
But reparations mean more than a cash payout, right?
It could. Reparations could come in the form of special social programs. It could mean giving away land.
That’s why people need to check the fine print on the support all of those Democratic presidential candidates have given to reparations. None of them have articulated a concrete proposal that would specifically give a cash benefit to black Americans.
They’ve talked about developing tax credits that would go to all low-income people, not just blacks, and creating so-called “baby bonds” that would help all of America’s children pay for college, not just African-American children.
None of the major Democratic candidates so far have proposed making direct cash payments to African Americans as a way for the country to atone for its “original sin,” except for Marianne Williamson, who announced her candidacy in January.
Those numbers make it difficult for any candidate to try to sell a skeptical American public on the idea and to get lawmakers to pass legislation. And after the failure in the courts of Farmer-Paellmann’s lawsuit more than a decade ago, taking legal action to secure reparations doesn’t seem like the most promising route either.
Whatever happens, almost everyone agrees that something needs to be done to cut down the huge wealth gap between white and blacks that slavery helped created. Collins, the author and scholar, said his own research showed that the median wealth of a white household is $147,000, which is about 41 times greater than the median wealth of a black family, which is $3,600.
“This can only be explained through an understanding of the multigenerational legacy of white supremacy in asset building,” he told CNN.
“People say, ‘slavery was so long ago’ or ‘my family didn’t own slaves.’ But the key thing to understand is that the unpaid labor of millions — and the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, discrimination in mortgage lending and a race-based system of mass incarceration — created uncompensated wealth for individuals and white society as a whole. Immigrants with European heritage directly and indirectly benefited from this system of white supremacy. The past is very much in the present.”