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Should reparations focus on radical economic 21st century construction?

“CLOSE the racial wealth gap” was the phrase du jour last week at DC Council Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie’s public hearing on the Reparations Foundation Fund and Task Force Establishment Act of 2023. That slogan may work well as a galvanizing appeal, but it’s unlikely to instigate any significant shrinkage of that centuries-persistent economic separation between Blacks and whites.

Yet, in his prepared statement, McDuffie emphasized it as a core rationale for his actions: “The only way that we can completely close [the] stark racial wealth gap will be through reparations.” He noted that in the District — unlike anywhere else in the country — the government provided compensation to slaveholders to end the practice of enslaving Black people.

It’s true. In signing the DC Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln essentially bought the freedom of the 2,989 slaves in DC by paying slaveholders $300 per slave. He also allowed for the “voluntary colonization of former slaves to locations outside the United States” and “$100 to each person choosing emigration,” according to the National Archives.

And now today, “the oft-cited racial wealth gap in DC is stark with the typical white household having a net worth that is 81 times greater ($284,000) than the typical Black household ($3,500),” continued McDuffie, adding that his legislation, co-introduced by nine other council members, “seeks to acknowledge and address centuries of government-sanctioned policies and private practices that exploited Black people as chattel property, violently robbed Black communities of generational wealth, and baked anti-Black racism into the core of our institutions and society.”

No one can deny the horrific history of slavery in America, and the inhumane treatment — from beatings, to lynchings, rapes, starvation, family destruction — visited on as many as 12 million Blacks during more than 200 years of enslavement. Many of their descendants felt painful discrimination throughout the Jim Crow era. This 21st century has rendered its own unimaginable harm, including police brutality.

The debate over these past decades continues to be about prescriptive redress. That question seems locked in past grievances and way too much talk around killing the wealth gap.

William Darity Jr., a professor of public policy, African and African American studies, and economics at Duke University, was part of that group of slayers. “We submit that the core of a plan for reparations for [Black] American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States must be, at least, an expenditure sufficient to eliminate the nation’s racial wealth gap,” he said during his testimony at the Committee on Business and Economic Development’s June 15 hearing.

“Black Americans comprise 12% of the nation’s population, yet they possess less than 2% of the nation’s wealth,” added Darity.

Depending on the model used to calculate the actual gap, eliminating it nationally could cost anywhere from $14.2 trillion to $15 trillion, according to a recent report by the Rand Corp. Indisputably, the enormity of the wealth gap dwarfs McDuffie’s modest proposal.

As written, McDuffie’s bill would require the creation of a nine-member task force to study the issue and make recommendations. It would amend the 1996 statute that created the DC Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking (DISB) to require its commissioner to “request and obtain information from insurers licensed and doing business in the District of Columbia (‘insurer’) regarding any records of slaveholder insurance policies issued by the insurer or any predecessor insurer during the slavery era and require all insurers to research and report to the Commissioner on insurance policies that provided coverage for injury to, or death of, enslaved people.” Finally, the law, if approved, would set up a reparations fund that would rely on “0.5% of sales tax revenue collected annually” and “0.5% of revenue collected by the Department of Motor Vehicles in fees and penalties.”

That last point affirms that imaginations do run wild in DC. It may have one of the worst records for collecting money from traffic violations. Equally problematic, the council and mayor have already claimed $578 million that has yet to be realized from traffic cameras that have yet to be installed. And Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen during the recent fiscal year 2024 budget discussion persuaded his colleagues to place dibs on whatever extra was collected to help cover the cost for traffic improvements. Meanwhile, if House Republicans have their way, that entire funding stream would disintegrate, as they would declare traffic cameras illegal in the District.

The reparations bill could change before it actually is voted on by the legislature. For now, it appears to be riding a wave of support. More than 100 people testified in person or virtually at the hearing, which proved to be an educational experience, especially for those unfamiliar with the depth of the movement and its precepts. The group of witnesses was diverse: Blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics; academics, political leaders, members of the clergy, and average residents.

Officials from jurisdictions where reparations have been or are poised to be implemented — including the states of California and New York, as well as the city of Evanston, Illinois — brought their practical and mostly successful experiences to the discussion. Some witnesses simply offered support.

Many, however, proposed various tweaks. For example, Darity pushed for an “exact definition” of African American and urged that the standard for determining eligible recipients include “lineage” and racial “identity.” Greg Carr, associate professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University, advocated that the “definition of entities responsible for harm should not be restricted,” among other things.

I wondered whether he meant that African American leaders might also be listed among those who inflicted pain and poverty on their own people by the programs and policies they have advanced over the years.

Dreisen Heath, a racial and reparative justice expert who twice testified before Congress, where a reparations bill has been introduced regularly since the 1970s, cautioned that the racial wealth gap should not be considered the only harm. She cited the environmental issues that have plagued residents in Ward 5 as an example of other problems to be considered.

She also urged that the task force be composed of community members, not just public officials. “The process should not be totally hijacked by systems of the government,” Heath told McDuffie. Not one of the council co-introducers bothered to attend the hearing, which lasted more than eight hours.

I, too, have my own questions about McDuffie’s legislation: Is a new task force really needed? Should the Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking be the entity charged with creating the database? I have little confidence in the agency, especially considering how it performed during the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice’s fight to force CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to use its excess surplus to assist vulnerable Black residents.

In her testimony, DISB Commissioner Karima Woods said the agency is willing to collect and provide the task force information about slave-era insurance companies but that four states have already set up such a database. She proposed amending the bill to allow DISB “to obtain the required information from other states that have conducted similar data calls rather than through its own data call.”

“There are approximately 1,300 insurance companies licensed in the District, very few of which, including any predecessor insurer, were in existence prior to 1865,” Woods added.

Could Woods’ suggested change prevent the District from compiling a complete database of those eligible for reparations?

I am more concerned about the overall value of reparations as they are being conceived and proposed for implementation. Are they needed to effectively battle corporations engaged in redlining, preventing economic growth in Black or low-income communities? Are they needed to improve the quantity and quality of health care? Are they needed to improve public education, particularly in DC where the school system is predominantly Black?

As presented, they have a feeling of a one-off approach: Give a descendant $25,000 and move on.

Equally important, if political and reparative justice leaders want to erase the racial wealth gap, they may want to keep in mind that race was and is a construct of those intent on dominating the country’s economic system. Further, they should inspire a movement that will effectively harness Blacks’ current buying power that is estimated to be $1.6 trillion and growing.

Finally, with an eye focused on the prize, it seems to me that a more strategic design is required — one that aims to fully supplant institutional or structural racism. Achieving this requires a tangible and measurable transformation of current economic and public policy systems that, without radical change, will undoubtedly continue to harm Blacks and other people of color.

This article was also published on


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