DURHAM, N.C. — He’s been one of academia’s leading authorities on American racial inequity for years, in high demand by Democratic presidential candidates who hope he’ll endorse their proposals to close the “racial wealth gap” — a term that his research helped popularize.

But as William “Sandy” Darity shuffles through papers in his second-floor office at Duke University, the gray-haired economist explained that he was hard at work on his own proposal, one that could be the most sweeping of his career — a concrete plan for paying monetary reparations to the descendants of slaves.

Darity has enlisted a dozen black academics and activists, the self-titled “Planning Committee for Reparations,” to craft a report that will lay out not only a rationale for why descendants of slaves should be paid reparations but also suggestions for how to implement such a program.

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The effort aims to seize on a national conversation around reparations, one that has for decades been relegated to the fringes of black activist circles but has gained significant mainstream attention in the past five years and been propelled by the Democratic presidential primary contest.

“There’s a climate in which there is a wing of the Democratic Party, in particular, where folks are really talking about transformative policies,” Darity said in a recent interview. “This is the most extensive national conversation about reparations since Reconstruction.”

While polls show the majority of Americans oppose paying monetary reparations to the descendants of slaves, support for such measures has doubled since the early 2000s. A 2002 Gallup poll found just 14 percent of Americans support cash reparations for slavery. When Gallup polled again earlier this year, support had jumped to 29 percent.

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Even with an increasing number of people open to the concept of reparations, a crucial question looms over the debate: Who would be eligible to receive the payouts?

Darity has long advocated that reparations should be given to people who prove they descended from a person enslaved in the United States — increasingly possible, he notes, because of online ancestry databases — and show that they have identified as black in public documents for at least 10 years. A program with such parameters would exclude a number of black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved elsewhere, such as Jamaica, Haiti or the Bahamas.

Darity’s core argument is that black slaves were subject to a form of sustained, race-based discrimination unique in American history, robbing them of individual agency, voting rights and the ability to accumulate wealth and education.

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The lingering result, Darity argues, is a stunning wealth gap — a recent study that he co-authored found median wealth in greater Los Angeles was $355,000 for white households and just $4,000 for African Americans — that drives other racial disparities in areas such as crime, education and health outcomes.

Darity’s cohort includes historians and economists from Duke, North Carolina Central University, Florida State University and the University of Connecticut, as well as Mary Frances Berry, a former chairwoman on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. They plan to deliver their report in early 2020 so if Congress establishes a commission to study reparations, the proposal can provide a vital road map.

The ADOS movement

A key challenge, Darity and his partners concede, will be convincing the public that reparations are achievable.

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“We need to overcome this perception that reparations is sort of a pie-in-the-sky concept,” said Trevon Logan, an economic historian at Ohio State University who is working with Darity.

“This is not a new item on the agenda. African Americans, from immediately after emancipation, were seeking to find ways to close the racial wealth inequality,” Logan said. “Early black politicians were interested in using tax policy to try to redistribute wealth and to increase landownership among former slaves.”

When he was in the House, John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) proposed a congressional study into the feasibility of reparations — H.R. 40 — during every session of Congress from 1989 through 2017. That push was modeled largely after the successful efforts that, in 1988, secured an official apology and monetary reparations for Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II.

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“The descendants of slaves certainly deserve the same considerations,” said JoAnn Watson, a former Conyers aide who later spent a decade as a Detroit city councilwoman. “The time for reparations has come.”

Darity’s efforts will probably be both furthered and complicated by his public association with a small but outspoken online movement called American Descendants of Slavery, or ADOS, which draws a stark distinction between the lineage of slave descendants and that of American-born descendants of black immigrants.

The group, like Darity, advocates that reparations be strictly reserved for those who can trace their lineage to enslaved people held in the United States, excluding the children of more-recent African and Caribbean immigrants who have also been subject to race-based discrimination. More divisively, the group and its leaders also have aggressively argued that current immigration levels present a threat to the livelihood of black Americans.

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That framing has rankled many black activists — some of whom have documented being harassed online by ADOS supporters — who have long adopted a more Pan-African ideology and see any effort to delineate among various groups of black Americans as having the potential to fuel xenophobia. In interviews, half a dozen activists and academics praised Darity’s work but found themselves perplexed by his willingness to associate with ADOS.

“It’s extremely difficult to separate classes of black people,” said Nkechi Taifa, a D.C.-based activist who has advocated reparations for more than three decades. “The idea that unless you can actually trace your family directly to a slave that you haven’t been subject to the legacy of slavery is a bunch of hogwash.”

Still, Taifa said she is encouraged by how mainstream the discussion of slavery’s lasting effects has become.

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“When we were doing this work decades ago, we knew we were planting seeds,” she said. “I never imagined I’d be able to sit under the shade of the trees from the seeds that I was planting.”

Darity, who has in the past defended ADOS from charges of nativism, says he does not agree some of the most vitriolic messaging, but he credits ADOS with helping raise the profile of the push for reparations.

In defending his rationale for limited eligibility for reparations, Darity notes that the majority of black immigrants came after the civil rights period in the 1960s. While it is clear that more recently arrived black Americans have faced discrimination — and in many cases have ancestors who were enslaved — Darity said he finds it hard to argue that those who immigrated voluntarily deserve the same reparations as the descendants of those brought to the United States in chains.

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“If you told me that the only way that I could have a reparations program is that if I gave it to more people, then I’d say okay,” Darity said with a laugh. “But I’m trying to think about how we craft a case that is specific to the United States government as the perpetrator, and I think it becomes very difficult to argue that the United States government should pay reparations to people who have chosen to come here.”

Past efforts to advocate reparations have similarly centered on the experience of descendants of American slaves, said Ashley D. Farmer, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied black-nationalist groups.

“I’m not sure that the folks that I’ve studied where particularly well versed in slavery outside of the American context,” said Farmer, who is not affiliated with Darity's efforts. “It’s an interesting blind spot.”

A shift on the left

The current iteration of the reparations debate was kick-started nationally in 2014 when the Atlantic magazine published Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.”

As with most issues of race and justice, public opinion is divided along racial and partisan lines. A significant majority of black Americans polled (73 percent) and a plurality of Democrats (49 percent) told Gallup pollsters earlier this year that they support cash reparations. The same poll found that the vast majority of white Americans (81 percent) and Republicans (92 percent) oppose cash reparations.

Former president Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president but not a descendant of slaves, has long declined to directly answer whether he would support a reparations program, instead focusing on its lack of political feasibility.

“You can make a theoretical, abstract argument in favor of something like reparations. And maybe I’m just not being sufficiently optimistic or imaginative enough,” Obama told Coates in an interview in 2016, “. . . but I’m not so optimistic as to think that you would ever be able to garner a majority of an American Congress that would make those kinds of investments.”

Some prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), publicly support the resolution to launch a formal study of how reparations could work. And at least four Democratic presidential primary candidates — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro and Marianne Williamson — have expressed support for the concept of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves.

Republican officials, meanwhile, have largely dismissed the concept. In June, on the same day the House Judiciaries Committee was set to hold a hearing on the topic, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced his opposition.

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for which none of us living are responsible, is a good idea,” said McConnell, whose ancestors owned slaves.

Darity and other reparations supporters say that the current political moment should encourage politicians to pursue policies once considered impossible — after all, a reality-television star is president.

“Trump has made it clear that positions that we have typically considered to be extreme or out of the boundaries no longer are, on the right,” Darity said. “So why not reconsider things on the left?”