The fight for reparations can be a useful decoy in solving America’s racial wealth gap
‘Baby bonds’ is a more politically viable answer to the disparity in black and white wealth
Reparations can help close the racial wealth gap — just not the way you might think.
America’s racial wealth gap should leave us all gloomy. For every dollar owned by the median black household, the median white household owned $13. And for every dollar owned by the median Latino household, the median white household owned $10. Those numbers are from a recent study, The Asset Value of Whiteness, produced by researchers at the think tank Demos and Brandeis University, based on data from 2013.
Our path to this inequity began centuries ago: Slavery. Segregation. Redlining. We don’t appreciate how much programs like the GI Bill disproportionately helped white World War II veterans attend college and buy homes with guaranteed mortgages. This and other federal policies intentionally bolstered a largely white American middle class while crippling that of people of color.
A country in which wealth is so unevenly distributed along racial lines reproduces racial stratification generation after generation. As the study notes, if “a substantial racial wealth gap persists, white households will continue to enjoy greater advantages than their black and Latino neighbors in meeting the financial challenges of everyday life and will be able to make greater investments in their children, passing economic advantages on.”
Crucially, the report refutes theories that a lack of personal responsibility explains the gap. Minorities should just attend college more. Raise their children in two-parent households. Get full-time jobs. Spend less money. None of these appreciably closes the racial wealth gap, though.
How can we ameliorate this situation? I see two ways forward.
One way is to champion universal policies that help all racial groups but disproportionately help people of color because they disproportionately lack wealth. An idea called “baby bonds” is the best version of such a policy.
The other way is to push for race-conscious policies such as reparations. The former provides a more viable route, given political realities, but reparations can be a strategic decoy that eases the acceptance of baby bonds. We must walk both paths if the racial wealth gap is to ever be closed.
William “Sandy” Darity Jr., a Duke economics professor, and Darrick Hamilton, an economics professor at The New School in New York, came up with the idea for baby bonds.
Each newborn child would be granted a bond, a federally funded trust fund of sorts. The poorest child would get, say, $60,000, with the amount dwindling to nothing for the children of the richest families. The money would be put in an interest-bearing account that becomes accessible upon adulthood and could only be used for wealth-building activities, such as going to college or putting a down payment on a home. They figure the program would cost about $60 billion per year, which, Darity and Hamilton wrote in an academic paper, is “less than 10% of the non-war spending budget for the Department of Defense.”
Some might contend that baby bonds, by focusing on wealth rather than race, unsatisfactorily address a racial problem. But, Darity and Hamilton argue in their paper, “Since the distributions of white and non-white wealth are so disparate — 85% of black families have wealth holdings below the median white family — wealth can be an effective non-race-based instrument to eliminate racial inequality.” Darity told me he thinks baby bonds “could go a long way toward closing the racial wealth gap.”
The universality of baby bonds also gives it the potential to attract support from an interracial coalition of working-class people pursuing their own economic self-interest. Such a coalition could form a base that a political majority can rest upon. A poor white person in West Virginia would have as much reason to support this program as a poor black person in rural Alabama. Baby bonds might get people to appreciate their commonality with others who, because of race, rarely think of themselves as having the same interests.
Given our political climate, many will be pessimistic about the likelihood of forming such an interracial coalition. Although that sentiment is understandable, we have reason for optimism.
The current era in American politics can be compared to Southern Redemption, the period when white supremacist politicians regained power after Reconstruction. In the wake of Redemption, however, Southern populist movements in the late 1800s gained traction, getting poor white folk to ally with poor black folk by explicitly arguing that powerful white elites kept them both in poverty. These populist politicians carried a consistent and truthful message: White elites used racism to separate white and black folk who were mired in destitution yet could be lifted together through responsive lawmaking.
These times call for a similar movement, which will admittedly require a gargantuan effort. But the fact that politicians in the 1880s, two decades after the end of slavery, were able to join working people of different races should give us hope. Baby bonds — particularly because they focus on what people are most concerned with, the future of their children — can be a policy that drives this movement.
Reparations are the most prominent race-conscious means to address the racial wealth gap. But when can we conclude that a seed will never germinate? Black folk have been working the reparations land for more than two centuries with little to show for it.
During the Revolutionary War, Peter, a free black man behind British lines, was enslaved by William Steel, an American officer. Peter was freed after six months, but years later he sued Steel for back wages, one of the first claims for reparations for the atrocities visited upon black people. The court held that he articulated a viable claim but awarded him no money.
Toward the end of the Civil War, when black folk who freed themselves cried out for land of their own, Gen. William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 provided them a loaned mule and 40-acre plots on the Southern coastline. President Andrew Johnson later revoked it, however, returning the land to its original white owners.
In 1894, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate that would have paid a lump sum of at most $500 and monthly pensions ranging from $4 to $15 to formerly enslaved people and their children. This and comparable bills never received floor votes in either house of Congress, and the “pension movement” fizzled once World War I started. Reparations arguments bubbled up again during the 1960s. And in every congressional session since 1987, Rep. John Conyers has introduced a bill that would form a commission to study the effects of slavery and American apartheid and “recommend appropriate remedies.” This bill has gone nowhere. The struggle continues, but the goal is still far away in the distance.
Reparations were once just about slavery. Its proponents have updated the claim to include harm from Jim Crow, 19th- and 20th-century white-over-black governing and 21st-century racial discrimination. The underlying claim is simple: A series of evils have been inflicted on black people, causing various lacerations requiring healing. That healing, under the most-discussed scenarios, would come in the form of taxpayer-funded payouts. And therein lies the issue — the belief that white folk would ever take billions out of their pockets to specifically remedy the harm perpetrated upon black folk.
The reparations movement has never managed to get around that impasse, as many white people are loath to do right by black people without also reaping a benefit.
To flesh out the point, let’s examine Sherman’s field order. He devised it not to champion black interests but to aid himself: He needed a way to discard, while also providing for, the freedmen who had followed his troops during their march from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean. And he desired to punish the Confederates who started the war. He achieved both with one move. If he thought the order would have helped the freedmen but undercut the Union’s interests, Sherman would never have championed it, and President Abraham Lincoln would never have endorsed it.
Besides doing nothing to close the racial wealth gap regarding Latinos, reparations provide little to black folk — because it’s a dream that will never come to life.
Despite my pessimism about reparations, the movement can act as a strategic decoy to help popularize a policy like baby bonds.
Think back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement triumphs. He was one voice among many petitioning for racial equality. Several of the others who registered nationally came from his political left. Malcolm X and black power advocates like Stokely Carmichael helped King because they made his militancy appear moderate. King’s desire for black folk to be equal partners in American democracy departed dramatically from the status quo, yet he looked judicious in a sea of more militant aesthetics.
Advocacy for reparations can have the same effect: It can be the radical idea that makes baby bonds seem like a moderate panacea to the racial wealth gap.
Even so, reparations should be sold differently to be a better strategic decoy. Al Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina and the author of Reparations: Pro and Con, told me that, “one time I flippantly suggested we should [put forward a reparations bill] in Congress and call it the ‘White Supremacy Maintenance Act.’ Call it something that will be acceptable to the voters and put something else in it.” I concur with Brophy’s main thrust. The times perhaps call for a marketing shift that plays to many white folks’ self-interest.
That new rationale for reparations should focus on how centuries of racism has created a market inefficiency that harms everyone. American capitalism underperforms since black folk, 13 percent of the country’s population, are unable to contribute as much as they should because of a lack of wealth. The injustices that black folk have suffered hurt all participants in our economy, not just black folk. Perhaps an unemployed white man from Cincinnati, for instance, would have a job if a black woman had the money to start a small business. Reparations for black folk, in other words, would redound to everyone’s benefit.
According to a 2016 YouGov poll, two-thirds of Americans oppose reparations. I don’t expect this new rationale to drag reparations across the all-important “50 percent in favor” threshold. This is a smart tactical shift, nonetheless, for two reasons. First, it could make reparations more popular, coaxing its opponents to favor a less radical idea like baby bonds. Second, selling reparations like this teaches white people to cease thinking about wealth as a zero-sum game — more wealth for people of color doesn’t necessarily mean less wealth for them.