From Here to Equality

From Here to Equality:
Reprations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century
by William A. Darity Jr. & A. Kirsten Mullen

 

A Review by Dwight A. Moody

 

Protests nationwide for racial justice and cash payments to individuals and businesses provide an opportune time for a fresh look at the case for reparations for slavery. In other words, the willingness of the people (through our government) to make direct payments to citizens in response to the COVID economic crisis opens the door to talk about this: should we the people (through our government) make direct payments to some citizens as a restitution for slavery and its aftermath.

 

If so, this book could be our guide.

 

William A. Darity, Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen (a husband and wife team of scholars, advocates, and authors) have produced the book we need to read.

 

Actually, I needed to read it a long time ago, fifty years before it was published. Then, I was taking courses in history to complete a degree in religion. And this book would have helped me be a better citizen, scholar, and person—and minister!

 

Not a page of this book flips over without leaving me with another shocking narrative that is new to me: stories of brutality, and deceit, and abysmal behavior by America and her white citizens. Worse yet are the stories of lost opportunities to do right, those occasions before, during, and after the Civil Way when leaders put forth strategies to change the national narrative about slavery.

 

For instance, in 1662, the Virginia House of Burgesses could have diminished the long-term impact of slavery by sustaining “the practice dating back to Roman times that conferred the legal status of a child’s father to the child” (72). This meant that white slave masters who impregnated their female slaves would pass to the mixed-race offspring their status of a free man. But the House did not do this. They reversed course, changed the law, and thus encouraged promiscuity as a way to increase the number of slaves born on the plantations.

 

Or take this example. Upon his surprise election as president, Abraham Lincoln proposed a plan for “gradual and compensated emancipation” in which “slaveholders would receive payments from the federal government approximating the free-market value of their human chattel” for any and every slave to whom they gave freedom (97). Instead, the slave states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy.

 

Here is another missed opportunity to do right, what is known as the Port Royal Experiment (except that I did not know about it until I read this book). During the war, Union armies came into possession of land as it was vacated by Confederate armies, especially along the eastern seaboard, including the barrier islands and mainland territory stretching far inland (including the very land upon which I now live, St Simons Island). A plan was recommended by federal agents to re-distribute this land, actually 40 acres and a mule, to the recently freed black people who had once worked the land as slaves.

 

It could have worked, could have become the prototype of economic reparations throughout the South. Instead, the post-Lincoln government decided to auction off the land; and in this way, most of the land ended up back in the hands of its original slave masters (but often after passing through the hands of northern investor/speculators).

 

The sadness of our sordid history of slavery has been compounded by this long list of missed opportunities to do right. Which raises this question: will we miss yet another opportunity to do right and thus bring justice, equity, and prosperity to our country?

 

The penultimate chapter address 13 common objections to reparations to the descendants of slavery. I found these especially helpful in addressing responses I have heard, including some that rise up in my own mind. Such as:

 

“Wouldn’t black reparations only create more animosity between the races?”

 

“Blacks already have received reparations from affirmative action programs.”

 

“Black reparations, unfairly, will ignore the parallel plight of the white poor.”

 

Finally, Darity and Mullen offer almost fifteen pages describing their idea of a “portfolio of reparations” directed toward eradicating what they (and others) call the “racial wealth gap”. It includes direct payments to individuals (over time), grants to institutions (like historically black colleges and universities), and the creation of a trust fund to support asset-building projects, including homeownership, higher education, and new businesses. They even suggest that, in addition to federal dollars, organizations, institutions, and businesses whose current wealth is, at least in part, attributable to slavery and its aftermath contribute to the reparations fund.

 

They even propose ways to authorize reparations through the Congress, finance it through the Federal Reserve, and manage it through a new National Reparations Board. It is all very compelling and seemly practical. Investing in the prosperity of the black community, the legacy of 400 years of slavery and its aftermath, would make our entire country more just, more equitable, and more prosperous, a giant step toward those first values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

 

It is presumptuous to suggest that such a magnificent book of advocacy and scholarship might be too short! But when I read the final chapter I was left wondering what might be the economic impact of this reparations plan on both the black community and also the wider American community.

 

This is a big book, a dense book, and in those ways a fitting successor to (and companion of) the earlier book The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist. Both books, and especially this one, need a popular version, one suitable for church study groups and community book clubs, one able to bring historical fact and practical proposal to the millions of people who would need to be converted for this to secure the political support to make it happen.

 

We aren’t there yet, but this book sure pulls that day a little closer.