By David A. Love
If you were to guess how much the United States owes Black people in economic damages for slavery, how much would it be?
In the part of the “I Have A Dream” speech that no one seems to remember, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
While some people would conclude that no dollar amount can make up for the centuries that Black people were kidnapped, enslaved and forced to work without pay, the fact remains that our misfortune made America wealthy. Slavery built the system of U.S. capitalism. Moreover, some people have estimated what the nation actually owes Black people.
YES! magazine published a fascinating infographic that illuminates the subject of reparations. It begins with a calculation that King made if America would stand by its promise of 40 acres and a mule, which is $20 a week since the late 1700s for 4 million slaves. The total was $800 billion, which in today’s dollars is $6.4 trillion.
Just to put it in perspective, this year’s federal budget is projected at $3.9 trillion. U.S. gross domestic product in 2014 was $17.4 trillion. So, this sounds like a significant deal of money, except for the fact that this is a conservative estimate. Other calculations are far higher.
For example, as the infographic shows, the National Legal and Policy Center placed reparations at $15 trillion, which would involve paying $500,000 to every slave descendant.
Time magazine columnist Jack White estimated that Blacks are owed $24 trillion, which amounts to unpaid wages denied to 10 million slaves, doubled for pain and suffering with interest.
Further, Dr. Denis G. Rancourt, a former physics professor at the University of Ottawa, determined the minimum amount of reparations is $59.2 trillion. He calculated that value of the stolen labor was $3.7 trillion, or 2 million slaves working 10 hours a day, 365 days a year for 70 years (between 1790 and 1860) at a rate of $7.25 an hour. Applying a 2 percent interest rate compounded annually, he reached the $59.2 trillion figure.
Without question, there is a strong case for reparations. The institution of slavery created the economic basis for modern capitalism and turned the U.S. into the wealthiest nation in the world. New York was built on cotton — the crop that dominated the international markets in the 1800s — as the city collected 40 cents of every dollar earned in the cotton trade, transforming it into a financial center. Moreover, at the start of the Civil War, slaves were worth 48 percent of the wealth of the South, more than all of the banks, factories and railroads in the country combined.
Meanwhile, the government paid reparations to slave owners, but not to Black people themselves. Rather, America maintained a convict lease system that swept up Black men and created a new form of slavery in the Southern prisons. The Black Codes were designed to impede Black progress and keep whites ahead of the game through discriminatory practices. Special fees for Black people discouraged us from owning businesses, and high interest rates hindered the building of Black wealth. In addition, segregation and racist policies have prevented Black people from benefiting from government programs that were made available to whites. As a result, the Black share of national wealth changed very little between 1865 (0.5 percent) and 1990 (1.0 percent), with very little for us to pass down to future generations. In addition, the wealth gap between Blacks and whites has not changed since 1970. Policies have kept Black people underwater and whites afloat and thriving — on purpose.
This is why reparations make so much sense, and this is what white privilege looks like. True racism exists not solely in the offensive remarks and epithets hurled by individual whites at Black people on a daily basis, but more importantly in the systems of oppression that stack the deck and rig the game. Whites mistakenly believe that racism is a thing of the past, and that slavery is something that occurred long ago from which they derive no benefit. However, there is a continuum of racial discrimination that extends from slavery times up until now, with mass incarceration and the war on drugs creating a new form of enslavement for Black people. White folks have inherited the wealth and privilege derived from free Black labor, which they willingly enjoy today. Similarly, Blacks have inherited, and continue to face the effects of this rigged game — which continues into the present day, even as we have struggled and resisted this system and attempted to build for themselves.
Every year since 1989, Rep. Jon Conyers (D-Michigan) has introduced H.R. 40, a bill which calls for a commission to study reparations. In April, the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW), led by Dr. Ron Daniels, held an international conference in New York, with participants from 20 countries and throughout the diaspora discussing global reparations strategies.
As for estimating the price tag, this is one way to continue the discussion and bring home the gravity of the issue.
“They owe us a lot of money,” Dr. King said.