The issue of reparation for slavery has been raised by descendants of slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean for several years now. The belief that white Americans owe black Americans a moral debt for compensation for slavery, Jim Crow and long-standing racism has been ongoing since emancipation.
Critics of reparation say that it would be difficult to make fair calculations as to how much victims would take and in what form, considering the years involved. And though attitudes towards reparations for slavery tend to polarize the U.S., BET founder Robert Johnson believes that “now is the time to go big” on reparations to help prevent the country from splitting into separate and unequal societies.
In an interview with CNBC on Monday, Johnson said the U.S. government should provide $14 trillion of reparations for slavery to help reduce inequality.
His comments come on the back of protests across the U.S. that have largely focused on racial injustice, the wealth divide and police brutality following the death of unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer.
“Wealth transfer is what’s needed,” said Johnson. “Think about this. Since 200-plus-years or so of slavery, labor taken with no compensation, is a wealth transfer. Denial of access to education, which is a primary driver of accumulation of income and wealth, is a wealth transfer,” said the entrepreneur and media mogul, who became America’s first black billionaire when he sold BET to Viacom in 2001.
The 74-year-old philanthropist argued that paying reparations or what he calls the “affirmative action program of all time,” would demonstrate that white Americans acknowledge “damages that are owed” for the injustices slavery created.
“Damages is a normal factor in a capitalist society for when you have been deprived for certain rights,” he said. “If this money goes into pockets like the [coronavirus] stimulus checks … that money is going to return back to the economy” in the form of consumption, adding that there will also be more black-owned businesses.
Federal Reserve data show that Black and Hispanic families have considerably less wealth than white families. Black families’ median and mean net worth is less than 15 percent that of white families, at $17,600 and $138,200, respectively.
Johnson, who has been supporting reparations for some time now, said he’s not advocating “more bureaucratic programs that don’t deliver and don’t perform,” adding “I’m talking about cash. We are a society based on wealth. That’s the foundation of capitalism.”
The topic of reparations made headlines last year when Democratic presidential hopefuls began throwing their weight behind the idea.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who announced her full support for reparations for black Americans affected by slavery, said last February: “We must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences including undermining the ability of Black families to build wealth in America for generations.”
Over the years, those who have supported reparations say it is necessary to help redress the wrongs of slavery and racial discrimination. It would also help to resolve the continuing troubles of America’s black community. It is documented that “black Americans’ continuing poverty is a result of America deliberately frustrating the efforts of black Americans to accumulate and retain wealth until the 1980s.”
Nationwide polling shows, however, that compensation for those affected by slavery is an unpopular policy.
In the journal Social Science Quarterly, a University of Connecticut researcher, Thomas Craemer estimated that it would cost between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion to give historical reparations.
The journal, cited by Newsweek, said Craemer came up with those figures by tabulating how many hours all slaves worked in the United States from when the country was officially established in 1776 until 1865 when slavery was officially abolished.
He subsequently multiplied the amount of time they worked by average wage prices at the time, and then a compounding interest rate of 3 percent per year to calculate the reparation figure.
“Reparations will never bring one life back, and it’s totally inadequate to the terror of the [past], but having a meaningful symbol of reparations is a good thing, not just for recipients but for the people who provide it,” Craemer said.