Federal Reparations: A Costly but Necessary Endeavor

Efforts at the state and local level to compensate descendants of enslaved people with reparations are counterproductive, according to leading reparations scholar, William “Sandy” Darity. Darity argues that these initiatives fall short of what a federal program could achieve. Furthermore, the cost of implementing a nationwide plan to close the racial wealth gap continues to rise. Last year’s estimate of $14 trillion has now increased to approximately $16 trillion, warns Darity.

Proponents of reparations maintain that descendants of enslaved people are entitled to compensation for the enduring effects of slavery, Jim Crow-era racial segregation, Black property loss, and discriminatory public policies. However, determining the scope, size, eligibility criteria, and forms of compensation remains a subject of considerable debate. An array of proposals has emerged, ranging from housing grants and direct payments to business loans and a national apology.

Data from the Federal Reserve reveals a stark wealth disparity between white families and Black families. In 2022, the median wealth of a typical white family amounted to $285,000, while Black families only had $44,900 in comparison.

Although a few states are contemplating reparations for eligible residents, the movement has gained traction in various cities as well. California, in particular, spearheaded efforts by establishing the first-in-the-nation task force. After two years of dedicated work, the task force released a comprehensive report comprising over 1,000 pages. This report recommended monetary compensation for descendants of enslaved people for health harms, housing discrimination, overpolicing, and other policy proposals. Presently, state lawmakers are expected to engage in debates to shape legislation informed by these recommendations.

Given the urgency and increasing costs associated with reparations, Darity emphasizes the need for swift action at the federal level. The longer we delay, the more substantial the bill will become. As the advocacy for reparations continues to evolve, it is crucial to consider the long-lasting impact this initiative could have on rectifying historical injustices.

From the archives (June 2023): California Reparations Enter a New ‘Battle’: Getting Lawmakers and the Public On Board

Analyzing the Path to Reparations in the United States


Efforts to establish reparations for descendants of enslaved individuals have gained momentum in recent years. Various states, including New York and Illinois, have initiated commissions to study and explore the potential of reparations. However, experts argue that this decentralized approach is insufficient.

Challenges of State and Local Efforts

Darity, an esteemed economist, believes that state and local government efforts to address reparations are fragmented and inconsistent. With different eligibility standards in each program, the outcomes for recipients will vary greatly depending on their location.

Moreover, Darity warns that if reparations are solely left up to states and localities, there will be communities that take no action whatsoever. Opponents of a nationwide reparations program could exploit this lack of uniformity as an argument against implementing it.

Another critical aspect to consider is the financial burden that would be placed on states alone. Darity estimates that the combined budgets of all state and local governments are significantly less than $5 trillion. Hence, he asserts that funding the eradication of the racial wealth gap necessitates a federal initiative.

A Call for Federal Intervention

Darity emphasizes the need for a federal project to address reparations comprehensively. While he is open to supporting a local effort specifically in Washington, D.C., he underscores that it would serve as a precedent for a broader nationwide program. By making a direct appeal for restitution to the federal government, the federal district can establish a framework for reparations that may resonate across the country.

Public Opinion on Reparations

Recent polls offer insights into public sentiment regarding reparations. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in October 2021 found that roughly 30% of U.S. adults support reparations for descendants of enslaved people. The same poll indicates that 77% of Black respondents and 18% of white respondents expressed support. Another survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in early 2023 revealed that approximately 36% of respondents support reparations overall. This includes 74% of Black respondents and 28% of white respondents.

The Journey Ahead

According to Darity, the realization of a nationwide reparations program depends on a transformative Congress that is willing to pursue such legislation. As it stands, substantial changes would need to occur for a program of this nature to have a realistic chance of becoming law.

More from the archives (July 2023): An affirmative-action ban has devastated many Black Californians — including this councilwoman fighting for reparations

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