Had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated, race relations in the United States would be drastically different than they are today. In 1865, Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 set aside 400,000 acres of former Confederate land for freed slaves, allowing each family to have 40 acres of farmable land. This order was the result of a conversation that was held in Georgia between General Sherman, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and 20 Black community leaders. Within five months, 40,000 free Black people had settled on the land. It was not included in the order, but leftover army mules were distributed to some former slaves, hence the phrase “40 acres and a mule.” But after Lincoln’s death, his successor Andrew Johnson reversed the order and returned the land to the original owners. Many former slaves were left with no option but to become sharecroppers, sometimes even working for their former masters.
Had President Johnson not reversed Special Field Order No. 15, the current racial wealth disparity, as well as gaps in unemployment, education, income and health care would be much smaller — if they even existed. But these gaps do exist, and we cannot move on as a nation pretending as if they don’t. The promise of 40 acres and a mule should have been fulfilled 156 years ago, but since it wasn’t, it needs to be fulfilled now. The needs of the African American community directly after slavery may be very different from the needs of the community today, but the basic premise of restitution for the original sin of slavery remains the same.
Present-day racial injustices are the result of deliberate policies enacted by the U.S. government, and attempts to eradicate such injustices must also be deliberate. Given that discriminatory housing practices, employment practices and other forms of racism have substantially limited, if not prevented, the ability of Black Americans to inherit wealth, reparations for slavery, segregation and centuries worth of racist policies are necessary in order for the racial wealth and income gap to be fully closed. In order for the United States to truly reckon with its racist history, a wide variety of systemic changes are needed, including police reform, criminal justice reform and access to affordable housing, but cash reparations are a necessary part of the path toward racial justice.
The idea of reparations is not unprecedented. In Germany, spouses of late Holocaust survivors are now eligible to receive payments from the government, in addition to the $80 billion that has already been paid to survivors. Here in the United States, the equivalent of $1.6 billion was paid to around 80,000 Japanese Americans who survived American internment camps during WWII. In Evanston, Illinois, Black residents are eligible for up to $25,000 in housing assistance to counteract the effects of segregation and redlining. Though none of these programs can ever fully make up for atrocities that were committed, the basic principle behind them is simple — victims deserve compensation.
Currently, there are drastic differences in economic class based on race. In 2019, the median net worth of white families was $188,200, but the median net worth for Black families was $24,100. Although median wealth is growing for families of all races and ethnicities, it is notable that Black Americans are still behind. One reason for this is inheritance. About 30 percent of white families report having received an inheritance, while only 10 percent of Black families did. Homeownership is also important to wealth, as it indicates the wealth that a family already has, not to mention its strong financial returns on investment, which allows families to grow their wealth. There is a racial gap in homeownership too, as 73 percent of middle-aged white families own their homes, compared to 51 percent of middle-aged Black families. Unsurprisingly, the typical Black home is valued at $150,000, compared to $230,000 for the typical white home.
What does it mean that inheritances make up a significant portion of the racial wealth disparity, but Black Americans receive them at a lower rate because their ancestors were not allowed to amass wealth? What does it mean that homeownership is a significant source of wealth for many families, which they frequently pass on to their children, yet Black Americans have been left out of homeownership due to racist policies such as redlining and housing segregation? These disparities are not by chance. They are not an accident. They are the result of atrocities that were committed years ago, as well as the failure to ensure that the victims of such atrocities had the same opportunity to thrive that they otherwise would have.
Slavery ruined the lives of enslaved people and left their descendants in economic, social and political ruins, and the United States was more than willing to risk that if it meant a stronger economy. Prior to the Civil War, cotton provided more than half of all U.S. export earnings, and 60 percent of all cotton in the world was grown in the southern United States. Because the South specialized in cotton production, northern industries were able to diversify and expand, thus creating more profit. Considering that the institution of slavery was paramount to creating the revenue necessary for the U.S. economy to experience prosperity, it follows that they should have been paid retroactively for their unpaid labor, but they weren’t. So, instead of pretending as if the debt doesn’t exist, the next logical step would be to distribute wealth to those who still suffer under the same institution that stole their ancestors’ labor.
A common concern of those opposed to reparations is that it is not fair to make people who never owned slaves pay money to people who never were slaves. The money for reparations would most likely not come directly from the descendants of slave owners — it would be paid for by the U.S. government, which would likely raise taxes on the rich, who are disproportionately white. Another possible method is to reallocate the money that the U.S. government already earns through taxes differently. For example, instead of spending $649 billion on defense, a large portion of that could go toward reparations. Given that 2016 price estimates for reparations range in the trillions of dollars, taxes would still need to be increased on the wealthy. The basic philosophy of taxes is that they are necessary to fund public goods and services that the community can benefit from. Even if you don’t have school-age kids, you have to pay taxes for public schools. Even if your house never catches on fire, you have to pay towards the funding of the fire department. Most people seem to have no issue with this because they view these services as necessary entitlements that benefit everyone. Just as every child has the right to free K-12 education and everyone has the right to call 911 and know that they will receive emergency services, everyone should have the right to know that the color of their skin is not going to be a factor in their ability to thrive. Currently, that is not the case due to historical injustices that have been compounded over time, so our tax dollars should be put toward ensuring that it can be the case in the future.
There are many considerations that come into play when crafting a reparations program, for example: should Black people not descended from American slaves be paid? Should well-off Black people be paid less than lower-income Black people? Should people who pass as white be paid? How should the total payout be calculated? I don’t have the answers to any of these specific questions, but they can only begin to be answered after we agree that the United States is in debt to its Black population. Reparations have the ability to finally close the wealth gap and give Black Americans the same opportunity to thrive as their white counterparts. They will not only benefit the Black community, but the country as a whole, as those who receive payments will be able to start or grow businesses that will add jobs to the economy and invest in long-term solutions to issues that their communities face.
Deana Ridenhour is a freshman majoring in history and philosophy, politics and law.