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Robert L. Johnson Reparations for slavery are the only way to fix America's racial wealth disparities

Slavery, Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination were a wealth transfer from African Americans to white people. It's time to make amends and give it back.
Image: BET Bob Johnson
BET Founder Bob Johnson speaks during a signing event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Dec. 12, 2018.Olivier Douliery / Abaca/Sipa USA via AP file

We know there are starkly different economic realities for Black and white Americans in this country, and solutions have not yet met those realities.

African American families lag far behind white Americans in all categories of wealth. More than 73 percent of white Americans own homes, while only 44 percent of African Americans do. The median income of a white American family is more than double that of an African American family. White Americans graduate from college at a higher rate than African Americans, which affects African American's ability to gain wealth given that, with a college degree, you're more likely to get a better-paying job. African Americans also lag way behind white Americans in savings for retirement and investments in the stock market.

When you see all the lagging statistics between Blacks and whites, you must ask yourself, "Why?"

It is not that whites are more intelligent, morally superior or more industrious than Black Americans, which are the primary sociological attributes that cause people to succeed in life.

African Americans are very industrious: They disproportionately work at some of the toughest and least-rewarding jobs in the country. It's not a lack of morality, as African Americans have a deep moral fiber. They firmly believe in traditional Judeo-Christian morality and can be more conservative than whites in many ways. It's certainly not a lack of patriotism: African Americans are loyal to this country and have fought in our wars when rights for which we were fighting for others were denied to us here.

The only honest conclusion to the question of wealth and income disparity is simply that white Americans, due to 200-plus years of slavery and systemic racism, had an unjust head start in wealth accumulation, income and educational opportunities that were denied to African Americans — and are still denied in many ways today.

The pernicious legacy of slavery is the primary factor in wealth disparity, racial animosity and discrimination.

When you accept that conclusion, the only thing left is to admit and acknowledge that the pernicious legacy of slavery is the primary factor in the wealth disparity and racial animosity and discrimination.

The system of slavery and its aftermath not only denied African Americans the right to accumulate any kind of wealth but, even more detrimental to the human spirit, it convinced African Americans that they were never intended to be economically and socially equal to white Americans. African Americans were left to believe that, for them, the American Dream — in a nation founded on capitalism and rule-of-law — was nothing but a cruel hoax.

So, I'm calling for reparations and asking for two things. First, that white Americans recognize that reparations is a payment to atone for the largest illegal wealth transfer in this nation’s history; and second, to understand that the phrases equal justice and economic equality will ring hollow to Black Americans until they are made whole.

White Americans had an unjust head start in wealth accumulation, income and educational opportunities that were denied to African Americans

Now, how do you implement this massive wealth transfer from white Americans back to Black Americans? The only way to do that is to grant Black people the right to damages in the form of direct cash payment, so that they have the financial assets to achieve economic equality with their white counterparts.

Give the Black descendants of enslaved people what they would have had and should have had, if their ancestors had not been forced to transfer their wealth to white people because of the establishment and government maintenance of slavery, Jim Crow and discriminatory laws for 200-plus years.

I put the amount owed at $14 trillion.

People ask how I arrived at that number, and I'll admit that it's mostly math with some justifiable assumptions. Basically, the goal of the $14 trillion is to close the wealth gap.

The math goes like this: A typical African American's net worth is $17,000, while the typical white American's worth is $170,000, which is a tenfold gap. You want to close the aforementioned gap in homeownership — 40 percent vs. 70 percent. You also have to factor in the income gap (about 25 percent), the cost of education, the differences in savings and investment. To close all those gaps with payment over 30 years, it's going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $357,000 per African American citizen. Multiply that by the 40 million individuals whose ancestors were enslaved, and you arrive at around $14 trillion.

There are, historically, usually three arguments against reparations.

The first is why a person who had nothing to do with the harm caused to people who are now dead and gone should be forced to pay for damages they did not commit or have any role in fostering. The answer to that is that a nation committed to the equal treatment of all of its citizens must acknowledge and address that the past denial of equal rights and treatment to insure that the founding principals of said nation serve to build a unified society and guarantee the social and economic harmony that all its people need not only to survive but to thrive. That has been the historic justification for all reparations handed down throughout the history of freedom-loving and morally centered people.

The second argument is how to determine who is eligible to receive reparations. My answer to that is straightforward: All living descendants in the United States of once enslaved African Americans. It is impossible to predict how the lives of each African American living in the United States would have been different, had there never been slavery and the resulting systemic racism that followed. Therefore, there should be no restriction or limitation on who is entitled to reparations and how little or how much one has been harmed. The damages of slavery and discrimination were government-endorsed and government-enforced; therefore, if anyone is to blame, everyone is to blame.

The last argument against paying African Americans for damages is that the taxpayers don’t have the money to pay for it — but we already pay for it. We pay for food stamps. We pay for low-income housing. We pay for welfare. All of these government and so-called public assistance programs are tax transfer payments to millions of African Americans whose current economic conditions are directly related to income inequality and the lack of equal opportunity.

So, when people say we don't have the money, what they're really saying is that they would rather support paternalistic government need-based programs rather than direct cash payments to individual African Americans. Perhaps some believe that African Americans aren’t worthy of having their own money, or that African Americans don’t know how to manage what would be their own money. I reject that notion; put the money into the hands of African Americans and let them decide how they will manage their own financial future. Given money, African Americans would do the exact same thing that white Americans do: They would pay to send their kids to good schools, they would pay to buy nice homes, they would pay to maintain those houses and keep their neighborhoods stable.

Beyond that, to pay someone damages is to acknowledge the harm you caused; financial damages are a legal atonement — an apology, and a way to make us financially equal. Thus, reparations have the twin benefits of offering Black Americans the nation's atonement as well as movement toward racial equality in terms of wealth and income.

This would also give Black Americans an opportunity to forgive, and the power of forgiveness in this country can be an amazing salve, both to Black America and to Black Americans' attitudes about white America. If you return to Black Americans the wealth that was stolen from them, I believe they will return to you their faith in what you have come to call American exceptionalism.

The question you must answer is whether the American people have the moral fiber today to stand for the principles over which this nation went to war 160 years ago: Paraphrasing the words of Abraham Lincoln, this is “testing whether this nation, or any nation, so conceived [in liberty] and so dedicated [to the proposition that all men are created equal] can long endure.”

[As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity]