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Dec. 9, 2021, 5:00 a.m. EST

Fixing the racial wealth gap with reparations: How it would work, who would qualify, and how much it might cost

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By Rodney Brooks

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What form should reparations take?

Options for the actual payment of reparations might include putting funds into individual endowments, offering programs that would increase homeownership among Black citizens and providing Black people with accounts that will give them direct access to those funds, said Rockeymoore Cummings.

Darity and Kristen Mullen argue that payments should be made directly to eligible recipients, but not necessarily with cash. Assistance could be in the form of trust accounts or endowments that pay out over a period of years.

But Darity and Mullen also argue that those accounts must be controlled by the recipients, not a third party. One reason for the trust accounts is that people who come into a huge amount of money, whether it’s inheritance or lottery winnings, usually lose it, spend it or end up in bankruptcy.

Also see: How to close the racial retirement gap

Who would qualify for reparations?

There’s a debate even among the leading proponents of reparations over who would qualify for reparations.

Some say reparations should be limited to those who have direct lineage to slavery.

Others recommend looking at the effects of slavery, not just the act of slavery. They believe we should consider every way slavery has shaped American society, including unequal education, redlining and even police brutality.

“Reparations do not need to be just limited to the policy of reparations for slavery,” says Rockeymoore Cummings. “Remember that there are people in this lifetime who were forced to go to separate and unequal schools because of Jim Crow segregation. That is just as legitimate a reason for reparative solutions as the institution of slavery itself.”

Darity and Mullen believe there should be basically two criteria for eligibility for reparations payments.

“An individual would have to demonstrate that one ancestor was enslaved in the United States,” they say. Or, they maintain, the person would have to prove that they identified as Black for at least 12 years before enactment of a reparations project or study commission by making public their response to the race question on the U.S. Census.

Some private organizations are already using their own records to identify eligible recipients. Georgetown University is raising $400,000 a year to benefit the descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold to keep the college afloat two centuries ago. And Princeton Theological Seminary implemented a $28 million plan that includes scholarships to descendants of enslaved Africans.

Mary Frances Berry, attorney, historian and former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, has a different idea.

She wrote a book on Callie House, a former slave who started a nationwide movement for slavery reparations in the early 1900s (“My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations.”) House’s organization had chapters and members who paid 25 cents a year, met in churches and petitioned the U.S. courts for reparations. The U.S. government eventually shut down the movement by charging House with mail fraud and sending her to prison in 1917.

“My own position is that if there are ever reparations, they should give them first to the people whose names are on those petitions,” Berry said. “Those people took great risks.”

Read this interview with author Rodney Brooks: How to close the racial wealth divide

Rodney Brooks is the author of “Fixing the Racial Wealth Gap” and a personal finance and retirement writer whose work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post and elsewhere. 

This article is reprinted by permission from  , © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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