Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2021

Darity on Reparations


Darity and Mullen make a case for reparations for African Americans where reparations refers to “a program of acknowledgment, redress, and closure for a grievous injustice” (p. 1). The emphasis in the reading we did was on the redress part. After recounting the history of how Black people were treated in America, the details of the program of reparations they describe in chapter 13 mostly concern monetary payments.

Darity and Mullen consider several ways of estimating the size of the bill. Most of these look at the economic losses suffered by slaves and their descendants while some focus on the value of the broken promise made of forty acres of land and a mule after emancipation. This material drops out of their analysis, as they reject all attempts at historically based accounting. Instead, they say that they “view the racial wealth gap as the most robust indicator of the cumulative economic effects of white supremacy in the United States” (p. 24). They estimate that it would cost between $7.95 and $10.7 trillion to close this gap (p. 25).

Our discussion

Issie and Izzy expressed doubts about the equation of reparations with racial equality suggested on page 2. If I recall correctly, they were skeptical that transfers of money would be sufficient to eliminate all forms of discrimination and racism. If so, they suspect it would be premature to say, as Darity and Mullen do, that “once the reparations program is executed and racial inequality eliminated, African Americans would make no further claims for race-specific policies on their behalf from the American government—on the assumption that no new race-specific injustices are inflicted upon them” (p. 2).

Jayden and Sam objected at the absence of political analysis in the piece. If this plan were codified in legislation, could it pass? They thought the answer was no. Or, at least, they thought that the authors should have addressed the question.

Ben said that he would prefer class based transfers. Race-blind policies to help those in the lowest economic classes would disproportionately help Black people since they belong to those classes out of proportion to their share of the population.

Strictly speaking, I think that might satisfy the criteria for a successful program of reparations that Darity and Mullen propose.

Reparations demonstrably would be effective if an improved position for blacks is associated with sharp and enduring reductions in racial disparities, particularly economic disparities like racial wealth inequality, and corresponding sharp and enduring improvements in black well-being. (p. 1)

One oddity of this is that race-blind transfers of wealth to the lowest economic classes would count as reparations even if there are more White beneficiaries than Black ones. I don’t think that is in the spirit of what they are proposing. But it does illustrate the problem of defining a program in terms of its consequences.

I proposed a distinction between forward looking and backwards looking considerations that might clarify what is going on here. Forward looking considerations tell us we should do something because it will bring about desirable results in the future. Backwards looking considerations tell us we should do something because of what happened in the past. For example, “we should transfer resources to Black people because that would close the racial wealth gap and thereby make society more fair” is a forward looking consideration. “You should pay compensation for the damage you did to my car yesterday” is a backwards looking consideration.

Suppose you say “If I were to pay you for the damage I did to your car yesterday, you would spend the money on something other than your car, so I don’t owe you anything.” I don’t think that would make much sense. If you owe me for the damage you caused, it doesn’t matter how I will spend the money. You owe it to me, period. In other words, the forward looking effects of paying me are irrelevant to questions about compensation for past wrongs.

By contrast, questions about the effects of transferring wealth are relevant to a forward looking argument. If the point of reparations is to equalize the wealth between Black and White Americans, then it is relevant to ask how the wealth transferred will be spent.


Darity, William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. 2020. From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. doi:10.5149/9781469654997_darity.