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'From Here to Equality' Author Makes A Case, And A Plan, For Reparations

When slavery ended, the disenfranchisement of African Americans did not. Discrimination continued in jobs, housing, education — barriers that have contributed to the staggering economic inequality that persists in the country today.

In a new book, economist William Darity Jr. makes the case for reparations as an answer to closing the racial wealth gap.

From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century, written by Darity and his wife, A. Kirsten Mullen, offers a roadmap on how to implement reparations for descendants of enslaved people.

Speaking with NPR, Darity said that while support for education and entrepreneurial activity should be part of any reparations plan, "the preponderance" of funds must go to individual recipients. "And they must go in such a way that we in fact eliminate the racial wealth gap," he said.

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

Interview Highlights

A lot of us learn in school emancipation happened, enslaved people were freed and then they were able to go and make money just like everyone else in the United States of America, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Your book does a fantastic job of detailing all of the ways in which that was untrue. The first being jobs. When enslaved people were emancipated, they couldn't just walk out into the world and demand payment for doing a job.

No, they couldn't. And one of the reasons they could not was because of the institution of a series of laws that we now refer to as the "black codes." And the black codes created restrictions on the authority that individual black folks had over their family life. But it also created restrictions on their employment opportunities and their capacity to exercise agency over the types of jobs that they took.

Did the North even win the Civil War? I mean, one of the things that is so clear in your telling of this history is that, yes, emancipation happened. But the Southern states, the Confederacy, made lots and lots of demands, particularly around what would happen to black people and what would happen to their labor, and the North gave in.

I think that's correct. The North did give in and I think that the North gave in, in part, because the price for providing full citizenship to black Americans would have meant having a sustained and long-term division among white Americans, because the price for achieving full citizenship for black Americans would have meant deconfederatization in full. And in turn, the North would have had to commit to having the Union army play an extended role in the southern part of the United States. And ultimately, it was not done.

When we look at these vast inequalities now between white wealth and black wealth — inequalities that extend to health outcomes, homeownership, education, the size of people's bank accounts, the neighborhoods that people live in — where do those gaps come from?

... The starting point is the failure to provide the formerly enslaved with the 40-acre land grants that they were promised. At the same time, substantial allocations of land were being made to white Americans.

And then subsequently, over the course of the next 80 years or so, there was a series of white massacres that took place across the United States, where black communities that had begun to develop some degree of prosperity and independence were literally destroyed.

And then in the 20th century, there was a sustained pattern of discrimination in access to home ownership on the part of blacks, starting with the existence of restrictive covenants, following through with redlining and the accompanying predatory lending practices that were associated with obtaining home mortgages. So, we have a set of public policies that lie at the heart of the creation of this gaping wealth gap.

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Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Lisa Weiner
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.