The Work of Atonement

The Work of Atonement
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The idea of compensating the descendants of American slaves for the injustices inflicted on their ancestors, as William A. Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen remind us in “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” is not new. Charles Krauthammer once proposed that the U.S. pay $50,000 to every African-American family of four in exchange for an end to affirmative action. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat proposed $10,000 per person. From 1989 until his resignation in 2017, Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill to form a commission to examine the case for reparations in every Congress. Ta-Nehisi Coates called for reparations in a widely read Atlantic article published in 2014. Among 2020 presidential candidates, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and, most recently, Joe Biden have all expressed openness to the idea.

At a time when the nation’s attention and that of the world are once again riveted on the state of race relations, “From Here to Equality” maintains that the only way to close America’s race gap is for the federal government to make payments to descendants of American slaves sufficient to equalize wealth on average between white and black households.

“From Here to Equality” weaves three themes together to make its case. Most of the book consists of a historical survey of the injustices done to Americans of African origin from the time of slavery into the 21st century. While this slender volume can’t offer a full account of this tragic history, no reader of these deeply felt and vividly written pages can be indifferent to the suffering described.

Shorter portions of the book attempt to assess the economic damage to the victims. How much did slavery cost its victims in purely economic terms? What was the monetary value of the abandoned proposal to give “forty acres and a mule” to each freed slave, and how much wealth would black Americans have today if that pledge had been honored? How much property was stolen or confiscated in anti-black riots over the decades, and what was the cost of legal segregation to the victims of Jim Crow? The authors’ purpose is to demonstrate, in the first place, that the racial wealth inequality we see today is the product of violence and injustice and, in the second place, to hammer home how ruinously expensive that injustice has been for American blacks.

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