What should reparations look like for Black Americans? #BuildingPower’s Zakiya Sankara-Jabar hosted reparations experts A. Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity Jr. on her latest show to get to the bottom of it.
Mullen and Darity have studied inequity for decades and they recently teamed up to write a new book on how we apply all their lessons. They joined Zakiya to discuss “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century” and what America needs to do to help our students of color thrive.
You can watch the entire episode here:
Now’s the Time
Mullen, whose expertise in Black folklore informed her work on Harvard’s Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice, says the time is ripe for actual action on reparations across the nation. We’ve been building to this moment, in fact.
She said that public figures have been raising the issue with more regularity in the last couple years, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi telling attendees at a 2019 Howard University speech that she supports a congressional study on reparations—the first House Speaker to support such a thing.
“It was kind of political suicide to mention reparations,” she said. But within the last couple years, the conversation seemingly has shifted.
Of course, a lot more needs to shift, including going from a “study” on reparations to actual reparations plans. Mullen said that it’s always been hard to get “supposed allies” to stick up for reparations because there are plenty of Black people who don’t support reparations themselves—something Zakiya noted can often be based on understandable pessimism that any government action will improve the lives of Black citizens.
“When you’re looking for a reason not to support a movement, any argument will do,” Mullen said. “If it appears the Black community is divided, then people say, ‘We don’t want to contribute to this divisive atmosphere.’”
Not all Black people think alike and won’t come to 100% agreement on anything because they’re individuals with their own opinions. So, Mullen says leaders have to take an actual position on the issue.
Darity, the Samuel DuBois Cook Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, noted the reparations initiatives publicly supported by recent presidential candidates like Julian Castro and Tom Steyer as examples of momentum. He also said public interest in the idea spiked following the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in 2020.
“The movement started to shift after 2019, but it accelerated after the tragedies of 2020,” he said.
So, What Would Reparations Actually Look Like?
In short, the way it’s looked for white Americans and white immigrants for centuries.
Mullen noted that, post-Civil War, formerly enslaved Black Americans were “forthright” in their demands for reparations. In fact, they based their demands on a model from something the federal government had already provided their white neighbors: The Homestead Act of 1862, which gave grants to white people to buy homes and develop land in then-recently conquered Native American land across the American West.
Other forms of government assistance to white people were systematically kept from Black Americans, too, from the GI Bill to cutting off Black neighborhoods from economic development that was provided no-strings-attached to white neighborhoods in the postwar boom of the 1940s and ‘50s.
This matters today because, like Zakiya said, working class Black Americans’ jobs “won’t be there in 2030” due to automation, artificial intelligence technologies, and more. So it’s urgent to build up Black communities now and provide them the tools necessary to thrive in the future—while acknowledging the failures of the past.