After Reparations Study Suggests $151 Million for Each African American, Experts Say Money Alone Isn't Enough

While debates around reparations for the descendants of slaves often focus on costs of such action, advocates believe discussions must also address other efforts for systemic change.

Financial estimates are wide-ranging depending on how they are projected and thoughts on what exactly will, or even can be paid for are also divided.

"Reparations is not a check in the mail," Raymond Winbush, author of Should America Pay? Slavery and The Raging Debate on Reparations and Belinda's Petition: A Concise History of Reparations For The Transatlantic Slave Trade, told Newsweek.

"We've got to look at the difference between changing symbols and changing systems."

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The growing dialogue surrounding racial justice following worldwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd has also brought the issue to the fore. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has got behind Democratic calls in Congress to enact a study on the matter of reparations being made to the descendants of those impacted by slavery.

House Representatives could hear a bill, H.R. 40, this summer in regards to forming a committee to discuss reparations. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said he could be in favor of cash reparations to African Americans and Native Americans if studies found this to be a viable option.

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"I think that Black people are saying we've had enough and I think white people are coming to grips with the fact that this country owes a debt that has been unpaid," Winbush added.

How could a cost be calculated?

If payments were to be made, the amount that would be calculated could vary dependent on how the cost is estimated, applications of factors such as interest and who would be considered eligible.

A study in The Review of the Black Political Economy journal, first published on June 19, titled "Wealth Implications of Slavery and Racial Discrimination for African American Descendants of the Enslaved," looked at the Black-white wealth gap alongside the cost of slavery and discrimination to descendants of the enslaved.

Among its estimates for the costs were around $12-$13 trillion in 2018 dollars, based upon estimates looking at land-based, stemming from the promise made to freed slaves, and price-based, considering what slave prices were.

But looking at a wage-based cost and factoring in interest it assessed the cost could be counted as up to $6.2 quadrillion as of 2018.

protest brooklyn
Clive Destiny an activist and founding partner for Unite NY addresses the thousands of protesters gathered on the lawn in Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn for a peaceful protest and march to support Black Lives Matter and protest against police brutality across the Brooklyn Bridge. Protests across the nation have raised discussions around systemic racism and issues such as reparations. Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

This amount, divided by 40,909,233 Black non-Hispanic descendants of the enslaved, could result in a total reparations payment per descendant of $151.63 million. This figure on the number of descendants may be overstated, as it likely includes some Black U.S. Residents who do not trace their ancestry back to slavery, the researchers note.

Another estimate, based upon wealth disparity, is around $14 trillion. Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, suggested this sum, which would amount to around $350,000 each for the estimated 40 million African Americans in the United States, giving them an amount signifying the wealth disparity between African Americans and white Americans.

This amount echoes that of a previous study, from University of Connecticut researcher Thomas Craemer, who was involved in the aforementioned study published June 19, that suggested an amount of up to $14.2 trillion.

This was calculated by tabulating the hours slaves worked between 1776 and 1865, multiplying the time they worked by the average wage at the time, then accounting for 3 percent annual interest, as previously reported by Newsweek.

As well as reparations based upon earnings, others suggest payment to backdate the failed promise of "40 acres" promised to slaves by Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman. Land was set aside though the order was reversed by President Andrew Johnson.

The June 19 study suggests based upon these parameters, the reparations could amount to around $11.9 trillion, estimating around $291,186 per descendant, based on an estimate for 2018.

The case for reparations now

A Brookings Institution report, titled Why we need reparations for Black Americans by Rashawn Ray and Andre M. Perry refers to the value assigned to slaves in 1860 of $3 billion dollars as another point backing calls for reparations.

"Slavery enriched white slave owners and their descendants, and it fueled the country's economy while suppressing wealth building for the enslaved. The United States has yet to compensate descendants of enslaved Black Americans for their labor," the report said.

The report suggests payments to the descendants of slaves, as well as programs such as student loan forgiveness and down payment grants.

"Given the lingering legacy of slavery on the racial wealth gap, the monetary value we know that was placed on enslaved Blacks, the fact that other groups have received reparations, and the fact that Blacks were originally awarded reparations only to have them rescinded provide overwhelming evidence that it is time to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved Blacks," it concludes.

reparations protest
Activists stage a protest to mark the National Reparations Day outside the residence of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) July 1, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Speaking with Newsweek, Ray said Congress should have looked into reparations long before now.

"There should not be any blocks to simply forming a committee. It should be a no brainer and should have occurred long ago," said Ray, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution.

On what should be done, he said "wealth-building opportunities" might also be an option.

"While direct payments are one option, we might also think about wealth-building opportunities in the form of tuition payments, housing grants, and small business grants," he said.

Winbush echoed that the time for reparations had come.

"The reparations movement is old. I think that people think it's very young," he told Newsweek, suggesting people linking it to Black Lives Matter makes them think it does not go as far back as it does.

"It goes back well over 200 years in this country," said Winbush, also a research professor and the Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, commenting on how social media in recent years has brought it to the fore.

More than just money

Winbush also suggested that while handing out money is an option, other methods of reparations, focusing on systemic change, could be implemented.

"If we were to say, 'just give everybody a check,' that's only a partial solution. I think reparations has been narrowly defined as it's related to money," he said.

"It's acknowledgement by a nation that they did something wrong. One way of atoning for that is money. But it's a variety of solutions."

Roy L. Brooks, author of Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations and Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy Over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice suggested that reparations must look at factors other than simply money.

"One of the most important responsibilities of the commission would be to educate the American people, including African-Americans, not only about slavery and its lingering effects, but also about the fact that reparations come in many forms and are not the only way to redress slavery," he told Newsweek.

"Apologies, truth commissions, truth trials, and reparations are just a few of the ways to redress any atrocity, whether it is slavery, Japanese-American internment or the Holocaust. Calculations are complex but not impossible because they have been performed all over the world in the last 70 years."

Regarding the cost of reparations, he said African-Americans will have to work through the models and issues in the context of the commission.

"Until that happens, it is not only premature to talk about the "cost" of reparations (or more generally slave redress), it is irresponsible," said Brooks, who is also a professor at the University of San Diego.

The costs of slavery

Joe Feagin, author of The White Racial Frame and co-author of Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations, and Racial and Ethnic Relations, similarly told Newsweek that there needs to be an examination of the "many other costs of slavery."

He said: "For example, how do you calculate the costs of great pain and suffering, and lives lost or cut short?"

Stating that most reparations estimates calculate "just the labor and wealth lost," he added, "I think it is at least as important to talk about the many other costs of slavery."

In terms of a starting point for reparations being paid, he suggested beginning with people who suffered under segregation.

"Start with reparations for Jim Crow, no questions there about the white nonsense about this harm happened centuries ago and we cannot figure out who did what to whom," he said. "Start with the living folks and then work backwards to slavery."

Deciding the amount

Craemer, whose research is mentioned above, suggested the work of a commission in looking at the financial costs has largely already been done—though stated issues that are difficult to quantify need to be looked at, with the descendant community integral in choosing an outcome.

"I would say, the commission's work has largely been done. It might be more reasonable to proceed directly to reparations," he told Newsweek.

"Otherwise, the need for further study may be misused by reparations opponents to indefinitely delay implementation. This has disadvantages not only for eligible recipients, but also for the U.S. government—reparations become exponentially more expensive the longer we wait."

With regards to the sum of reparations, he said estimates only address the financial aspect of slavery, not looking at its other implications.

"These specific estimates only address the value of slavery in the United States, they do not address colonial slavery, or racial discrimination after slavery. Also, they only address lost inheritances, they do not address loss of freedom, loss of other opportunities, or withheld compensation for pain and suffering," he said.

"In my view, it is up to negotiations between the descendant community and the federal government to determine whether the entire estimate should be compensated, or only a portion, at what interest rate, and using what estimation method."

Despite the increased discussion on the matter, polling from earlier this year found that only one in five asked felt the U.S. should spend "taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States," according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll which asked 1,115 adults in June.

Ray said the issue of reparations happening should no longer be a point of discussion.

"If 40 acres and a Mule was actually implemented we wouldn't be having this conversation," he told Newsweek. "Time is up. This needs to happen."

After Reparations Study Suggests $151 Million for Each African American, Experts Say Money Alone Isn't Enough | U.S.