Economist Suggests Staggering $12 Trillion to Pay Slavery Reparations

Economists have a new estimate about the cost of reparations for slavery in the U.S., totaling a staggering $12 trillion. The estimate comes from Duke University economist William Darity Jr. and was reported in a paper he co-authored with his wife, Kristen Muller. The payments take into account the long-standing ripple effects of centuries of inhumanity towards Black Americans.

Darity and Mullen's calculation is for what they call "systemic reparations," which they believe would close the wealth gap between white Americans and their Black neighbors. They summed up their findings in a 25-page paper called "Resurrecting the Promise of 40 Acres: The Imperative of Reparations for Black Americans." It notes the timeliness of the issue, since 142 members of the U.S. Congress are now openly supporting reparations for slavery, and even former Vice President Joe Biden has taken the idea seriously. Darity argues that the best way to accomplish true and lasting reparations is to close the wealth gap between Black and white people.

According to his calculations, this is a tall order. He believes it would cost about $800,000 per Black household. Adding up all the eligible households, this would cost the U.S. about $12 trillion — six times the budget of the CARES Act, which included the stimulus check.

Of course, the initial response to Darity and Mullen's paper was the question of how it could possibly be paid for — before even considering whether lawmakers would agree to it. Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, told CNBC that the coronavirus pandemic was already making the national debt nearly untenable, and this proposal could not be done.

"Our national debt is already now up to around $26-27 trillion given the money we're spending on COVID," he said. "And we're losing more money because we're not picking up the revenue because economic growth is so slow right now. This hardly seems the time to burden the economy with more debt, more taxes. Essentially what you want to do is stimulate economic growth for all our benefits."

Still, Darity argues that opponents of reparations ignore how far this measure would go in healing the inter-generational trauma and hostile divide within the U.S. His proposal also suggests that the government could take as long as a full decade to pay out reparations on this scale, without losing the efficacy and impact of the gesture.

Darity and Mullen also provide guidance on how eligibility for the program should be decided — feeling that it should go to the living descendants of people who were enslaved in the U.S. and who have identified as Black for at least 12 years prior to the program's beginning.

"This community's claim for restitution anchors on the US government's failure to deliver the promised 40-acre land grants to their newly emancipated ancestors in the aftermath of the Civil War," he wrote. "That failure laid the foundation for the enormous contemporary gap in wealth between black and white people in the U.S."

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Public support for reparations is growing — a recent Reuters poll found that 10 percent of white Americans support the idea today, as compared to 4 percent in 2000. However, that poll and other general discussions do not refer specifically to Darity and Mullen's figure, and even the lawmakers who have embraced the idea have not narrowed their plan down to one program.

If nothing else, this report drives home the unthinkable cost of slavery in human suffering, and the depth of the racial divide in the U.S. More of Darity and Mullen's writing on reparations can be found in their book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.