Do the descendants of slaves deserve reparations? For the first time in a century and a half, there is a legitimate political debate on this question. Many of the top Democratic presidential hopefuls support establishing them in some form, or at least launching a commission to study how it might be done. This past week, on Juneteenth, the House held a hearing on H.R. 40, a bill that would do just that.
But if Americans are now willing to entertain the notion of restorative justice for the legacy of institutional racism, slavery alone is the wrong place to focus. The damage to African Americans continued long after abolition in 1865. Efforts to subordinate and economically exploit black people extended through peonage, convict leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow, redlined black ghettos and mass incarceration. The ideology of white supremacy, used to justify slavery, persists. Why should subsequent racist practices get a pass while we zoom in on outright bondage? Anti-black segregation lives on, and the current damage to slavery’s descendants is direct and measurable.
In other words, reparations should repair what white supremacy still breaks. Atoning for the legacy of chattel slavery is simply not enough.
In 2016, the average black male worker earned only 70 percent of the hourly wage of the average white male, down from 80 percent in 1979. Education does not change these widening black-white wage gaps; they exist at all education and wage levels. Only 41 percent of black families were homeowners in 2014, compared with 71 percent of white families. For every dollar of wealth held by a median white family, a median black family holds 8 cents. Black students perennially lag whites in achievement, not to mention high school and college completion. Blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates, but African Americans are 6.5 times as likely as whites to be imprisoned by states for drug charges.
Where did these unequal conditions come from? They aren’t just the aftereffects of slavery. Generations of intentionally racist policies play a role.
From the early 1900s through the 1960s, the descendants of slaves migrated north and west to escape Jim Crow and seek opportunity. America’s response to this Great Migration of at least 6 million people was to confine them in ghettos, disinvest there and overinvest in white areas — a pattern of unequal distributional politics that continues to this day.
In the 1930s, a federal agency, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, redlined more than 200 American cities, giving majority-black neighborhoods a lowly “D” rating, on a scale of A to D, which marked them as “hazardous” to lending institutions. Grade A went only to “homogenous” white neighborhoods. That decision reverberated and became destiny. Blacks could not get loans to buy or invest in their homes. Starving whole neighborhoods of credit discouraged outsiders from investing there. A recent Federal Reserve study examined those neighborhoods and found that a D rating 80 years ago correlated with present disinvestment and decline. It increased black segregation and depressed homeownership and property values. It accounted for 40 percent of the gap in home values between D- and C-rated neighborhoods by 1980, and untold differences in value compared with A neighborhoods.
Major federal policies supported expanding and demarcating segregated black space and exclusionary white space. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured the 30-year mortgage to bring homeownership to the masses, who turned out to be white. Thanks to low down payments and interest rates, for those who could qualify for an FHA-guaranteed loan, buying a home became cheaper than renting. The FHA insured mortgages primarily for white suburbia, creating and reifying white space while refusing to invest in black communities or to underwrite mortgages for blacks who sought to buy in white areas. The Veterans Administration operated its mortgage insurance programs in the same racially discriminatory manner. African Americans, cut out of the government’s largest wealth-building programs, were preyed on by nontraditional lenders. And Washington paid city housing authorities to build public housing and acquiesced when officials intentionally assigned blacks and whites to separate and unequal housing projects.
The interstate highway program, the largest public works project in history when it was built, facilitated white flight from cities and created concrete barriers that demarcated the “black side of town” that whites learned to fear. Under a congressionally enacted urban-renewal program for “slum clearance,” which James Baldwin called “Negro removal ,” the federal government subsidized the local destruction of nearly 400,000 mostly black-occupied homes, “cleansing” downtown centers in the 1950s through the early 1960s. Most of those residents moved to segregated public housing or more marginal neighborhoods. Quarantining blacks in slum conditions and then blaming inhabitants for those conditions became its own vicious circle. In the 20th century, African Americans were “hypersegregated” — very high segregation according to demographers’ metrics like dissimilarity and isolation — in more than 40 cities. No other racial or ethnic group was subjected to such apartheid.
Thankfully, levels of segregation between blacks and whites have declined considerably since 1970. But the footprint of concentrated poverty has exploded since 2000. The truly disadvantaged descendants of slaves are African Americans stuck in neighborhoods that higher-income blacks have fled. Politicians like President Trump typecast them as thugs, welfare queens or other stereotypes that mask opportunity-hoarding among affluent whites and justify the way things are.
And federal, state and local governments and private actors continue to invest in and encourage segregation. In Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, virtually no public housing is located in majority-white areas. By its own admission, in an analysis submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and approved by the mayor and city council in 2015, the city of Houston concentrated more than 71 percent of government-subsidized housing in only five of its 88 neighborhoods, all of which were very poor and nonwhite. Other U.S. cities mirror this intentional pattern, with pernicious effects: Segregated communities tend to rate low on social mobility for poor children, and the gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites in very segregated cities can rise to 20 years because of increased exposure to trauma, lead poisoning, allergens in poor-quality housing, fast-food “swamps” and healthy-food deserts.
Clearly the repercussions of institutional, government-sanctioned racism live on, and they extend well past the confines of slavery. In 2016, overwhelmingly white school districts received $23 billion more in state and local funding than majority-nonwhite districts that served about the same numbers of children, according to EdBuild, a New Jersey-based group that researches and advocates for school funding. This disparity is caused by inequality in property tax wealth. Differences in local tax bases, in turn, result from this long history of intentional segregation.
Countries with high-performing education systems put their most talented teachers and extra resources in disadvantaged schools, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The vast majority of American states do the exact opposite. A 2009 study of Texas schools, for instance, found that black students attended schools with less-experienced teachers than white students had, and that this inequity significantly affected a widening academic performance gap between black and white students. Texas is hardly an outlier.
Unofficial redlining and mortgage discrimination against African Americans continue in the 21st century. Predatory lenders targeted black neighborhoods for their most usurious subprime mortgages before the 2008 housing crisis, according to a study by two Princeton sociologists. Then foreclosures reduced the black homeownership rate to the level it was in 1968, at the start of the civil rights revolution in housing.
Meanwhile, segregation creates city politics that reproduce inequality. Political scientist Jessica Trounstine, in her important new book, “Segregation by Design,” argues that wealthy whites still try to segregate themselves (through restrictive zoning and anti-black prejudice), and that local governments still acquiesce and invest more in their neighborhoods. In Baltimore, for example, a recent analysis found that neighborhoods that are less than half black receive nearly four times the investment of neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in 2015 canceled a proposed light rail Red Line that would have connected poor, jobless black neighborhoods of Baltimore to major job centers; Hogan redirected its earmarked state funding to roads in exurbs and rural counties. Meanwhile, he supported the Purple Line for affluent suburbs of Washington.
Reparations should be designed to repair what is broken in this country — to disrupt the practices of American caste that harm slavery’s descendants and hoard opportunity in affluent areas. They should create a new infrastructure of opportunity and inclusion in poor black neighborhoods: richly resourced schools and community centers, public transit, opportunity fellowships, housing choice vouchers, and mandatory inclusive housing elsewhere. A formal apology for slavery would be welcome, but even better would be a commitment at all levels of government to stop causing, and to reverse, the harm.