Repairs would shake up American capitalism – and that’s a good thing


Instead, mass incarceration exploded from 700% since 1970, with blacks imprisoned in five times the rates white people. And blacks who make up 13% of the general population count for 39% people experiencing homelessness.

While many white communities may have forgotten Sherman’s promise, black activists and artists have not. From the 1975 Commodores song ‘Give me my mule’ to the success of 2Pac in 1999 ‘Letter to a President’and Spike Lee’s production company, “40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks,” the promise reappeared in black popular culture.

Since the 1960s there has been a revitalization of the demand for repairs. The National Black Coalition for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) was founded in 1987 by a consortium of black leaders; the Movement for Black Lives launched in 2015 following the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice approves repairs; and the #ADOS (American Descendants of Slaves) online movement has grown in recent years among activists and young elected politicians advocating for reparations.

These calls echo in the streets across America. As Carmen Jones, a 24-year-old homeless activist, Black Lives Matter, who has traveled the country to protest the murders of blacks by police, told me: “Every system has hurt us: health, housing, education, police, the law. “

“I need a check, my kids need a check. We need checks that are 600 years old – you can’t pay the ancestors, so you have to pay the descendants.

Repairs in practice

To find out what repairs might mean in practice, I spoke to William Darity, economist at Duke University, and his wife Kirsten Mullen, folklorist, who are co-authors of the book “ Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century ”. I asked them what a comprehensive reparations program in the United States might look like, starting with who should pay them.

Contrary to recent reparations granted by local governments and private institutions, Darity and Mullen argue that the bill for reparations must go to the federal government, which has the responsibility to “sanction, maintain and allow slavery, legal segregation and persistence. racial inequalities ”.

Of the failure to grant 40 acres and a mule as many white families received Homestead grants, excluding New Deal blacks and GI invoice, Darity explained, “It was federal politics that created the racial wealth difference that we see in the United States, and therefore we argue that it is the federal government that needs to close the gap.”

At what scale should repairs be paid for and how much would they cost?

Darity and Mullen view the racial wealth gap as “the most robust indicator of the cumulative economic effects of white supremacy in the United States.” As a result, they say reparations should be aimed at closing the racial wealth gap between black and white families in the United States.

According to Survey of Consumer Finances, the average household wealth gap is about $ 840,000. Closing this gap and aligning the black share of wealth with the share of black descendants of American slavery in the population (13%) would cost around $ 11 trillion.

What forms should reparations take? For Darity and Mullen, reparations can take many forms, including: direct payments allocated over 10 years, public trust funds that provide grants for asset construction projects (such as home ownership, education, self-employment, purchase of financial assets) or funds to help expand the endowments of historically black colleges and universities.

Direct payments are an essential part of the proposal. As Mullen said, “We absolutely believe it is important, for both symbolic and substantial reasons, that a significant amount of funds be distributed to descendants of black American slaves in the form of direct payments or payments. cash payments. “

Mullen pointed out that these payments can be made in less liquid forms, to avoid skyrocketing inflation, and can extend over a decade. “For people who have not yet reached the age of maturity, these funds could be placed in savings accounts, which would slow down these expenses to some extent,” she said.

Who should be entitled to reparations? For Darity and Mullen, there are two main criteria. The first is that recipients must have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States. The second is that beneficiaries must be able to prove that they identified themselves as “black”, “negro”, “African-American” or “African-American” at least twelve years before the promulgation of the reparations program.

For many, an obvious question is, “can we really afford it?” As supporters of Modern monetary theory, Darity and Mullen estimate that the Federal Reserve can easily handle an annual expenditure of $ 1 trillion to $ 1.5 trillion if led by Congress without raising taxes.

I asked Darity if a reparations program should be funded not only by deficit government spending, but also by higher tax rates on the rich. He didn’t agree at all.

“The question of financing the project should not be limited by tax revenues of any kind. The combination of funding for the CARES laws, for the US bailout, the response to the great recession: all were cases in which the federal government generated very large sums of money overnight, without relying on additional taxes, ”he said.

The only constraint, according to Darity, is inflation. He stresses that the risk of inflation will depend on the extent to which the new resources stimulate more jobs and production in the economy.

“We are talking about a substantial shift in black American descendants in the economic well-being and opportunities of American slavery,” Mullen said. “An opportunity to buy a higher quality house, to send your children to better quality schools, an opportunity to invest in a business. When they receive something in the order of $ 840,000 per household, it is not trivial. “

Breaking down American capitalism

Many prominent commentators and economists endorsed the idea of ​​reparations, but refrained from adopting practical proposals.

Paul krugman said that the policy is “certainly fair, but I find it hard to believe it’s going to happen.” David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, wrote that “reparations is a drastic and difficult policy to execute, but just talking about it and designing it heals a wound and opens a new story.”

Ethically, it is the right thing to do, but reparations are not necessarily good economic policy or even practically possible, the argument goes. It would be better to institute universal social protection programs that disproportionately benefit descendants of slaves, without the difficult national conversations and impossible targeted bureaucratic procedures.

However, as historical precedents have shown, this is by no means impossible. If the repairs are ethically just and economically feasible, what is the rationale for not implementing them?

A comprehensive reparations program would involve a massive transfer of wealth on an unprecedented scale, eliminate vast inequalities, rectify hundreds of years of racialization and exploitation, and perhaps most importantly, shatter the meritocratic mythology of American capitalism. : that anyone can do it with enough ambition and hard work.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in ‘The Case for Reparations“The idea of ​​reparations is scary not only because we might not have the capacity to pay.” The idea of ​​reparations threatens something much deeper: American heritage, world history and reputation.

Slaves built the White House and the Capitol. And as Darity and Mullen have told me, many of America’s largest financial institutions, from Lehman Brothers to New York Life, have amassed phenomenal profits by lending money and doing the slave trade and trading. cotton empire.

The monthly reparation checks my grandmother received helped her financially, but more importantly they represented Germany’s recognition of the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime.

Slavery in the United States ended in 1865. But the American government still refuses to admit their guilt by paying reparations to the descendants of slaves.

Repairs could well shatter the foundations of American capitalism. And that’s not a bad thing.

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