Into Reparations with Nikole Hannah-Jones
Sheila Jackson Lee: Slavery is the original sin. Slavery has never received an apology. Reparations and the idea of this commission should be welcomed by all Americans.
Trymaine Lee: In the summer of 2019, in the House of Representatives, a dramatic and emotional hearing on H.R.40, a bill to create a commission to look at reparations, the way that this country, the United States government, could redress the painful and enduring legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and the structural racism that still pervades American society.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: To say that a nation is both its credits and its debits, that if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings, that if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street, that if Valley Force matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is not whether we will be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be died to the whole of them. Thank you. (APPLAUSE)
Lee: That same bill has been introduced every single year for almost three decades. And in the past, it went nowhere, while the ripple effects of racism have been everywhere. Black unemployment, poverty, health care, police violence, home ownership, the list goes on and on. But now, with fresh attention on the way that Black Americans have faced systemic violence and oppression for centuries, the idea of reparations is also getting fresh attention. I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. Today reparations for Black Americans. Could this be the moment?
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. She's been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant and, most recently, a Pulitzer Prize for her lead essay in the The 1619 Project, a special issue of the magazine to make the 400th anniversary of when the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colony of Virginia. This week, Nikole has a powerful new cover story. It's called What is Owed. And it looks at this whole idea of reparations, the idea that 400 years later this nation owns compensation to the Black descendants of enslaved people. So Nikole, this latest article focuses explicitly on the wealth gap between Black and white. What is the wealth gap?
Nikole Hannah-jones: I think first we should start with a definition. There's a difference between income and wealth. Income is what you get in your paycheck. You go to work, work 40 hours, you get a check. That's usually what you use to pay your bills. Wealth, on the other hand, is all of the assets you have minus your debts.
And wealth tends to be much more cumulative. We don't typically accumulate our wealth by ourselves. It tends to be generational and then grow over a course of generations. And wealth is what allows you to put a down payment on a house or send your child to college without taking out a bunch of student loan debts. Or if you happen to lose your job, wealth is what allows you to still pay your mortgage every month, even though you have lost your income.
Lee: Talk to me about just the nature of the inequality and how we arrived there and also what the wealth gap actually looks like.
Hannah-jones: So the wealth gap is the difference between the average wealth of a typical white household and the average wealth of a typical Black household. And in this country, the wealth gap is Black households have about $0.10 of wealth for every $1.00 of wealth that white households have.
So white Americans, on average, have ten times the wealth of Black Americans. And this wealth gap is a legacy of slavery and then the 100 years of racial apartheid that followed slavery. When we think about slavery, we think about racism. But it's useful to think that slavery was an economic institution and that the racism was created to justify the economic institution.
And the economic institution of slavery was to extract all of the wealth and capital from the labor of Black Americans and produce that for white Americans. And the fact that one of the largest indicators of the ongoing legacy of the institution is a wealth gap is perfectly logical. But we're just not often taught about it that way.
Lee: Nikole, what are some of the many ways we see this wealth gap illustrated in everyday life?
Hannah-jones: So the way the wealth gap manifests is Black people have the lowest home ownership rates of all groups. White Americans have the highest home ownership rates. Wealth transfers from family members to family members is often what allows people to buy a home.
It's why Black Americans with higher incomes have lower home ownership rate than white Americans with lower incomes. It's in student loan debt. So Black Americans have the highest rate of borrowing, but also have to borrow more money than white Americans.
And that is because less familial wealth means Black parents are less able to help their children pay for college. It's the ability to buy into neighborhoods that have better resourced schools. The majority of Black children attend a high poverty school, even though most Black kids are not poor.
So those are the ways that we see wealth. It is in businesses. When we look at businesses, Black people are most likely to own a businesses with just one employee and that employee being themselves. That's because a lack of collateral. Black people are not able to sustain and build larger businesses because they don't have the wealth to do that.
So there are so many ways in our society that we see the manifestation of wealth. And one more that I'll give you, when we looked at data coming out since the coronavirus shutdowns, one out of four Black renters has missed a rental payment and one out of five Black home owners has missed a mortgage payment, the highest again of all racial groups. That comes from a lack of wealth. Because when you lose your income, if you have wealth, you can still pay your bills for a period of time. When you don't have wealth, you immediately lose your ability to pay bills when you lose your income.
Lee: You have this line in your piece. And the wording struck me. Most Americans are in an almost pathological denial about the depth of Black financial struggle. Why is it that we operate in such completely different worlds, where the depth of that struggle is almost invisible to white folks?
Hannah-jones: Because we want to play down race disparities. We don't want to acknowledge that 250 years of slavery and a hundred years of legal discrimination has actually an impact on society today. We wanna be liberated of that legacy.
Lee: And you kinda argue that there's a complicity with the American government in maintaining this system.
Hannah-jones: So, one, Black people enter, quote/unquote, "freedom" without a cent to their name, no property, no land, no pots and pans to cook food, not a bed, nothing. No other races had that experience. And then, as Black people start miraculously to acquire land, to acquire property, to make something out of nothing, there is a systematic stripping of that.
So we know that, you know, white mobs would ransack and destroy Black neighborhoods, Black businesses. They would steal land, often with the participation and certainly with the complicity of government agents. But the federal government itself played a huge role.
So the federal government, you know, during the New Deal, creates New Deal policies that leave most Black people uneligible for social security. So the safety net doesn't include Black people for 35 years. When the government starts insuring home loans, it means that no longer do you have to put down 50% or 60% on a house.
You can put down 20%. But Black people were systematically excluded. And 98% of federally insured loans from 1933 until 1962 went to white Americans. So the government is building a white middle class while excluding Black people from having those same opportunities. So the federal government has not just a great deal of complicity, but helped create largely the structural inequalities that we see today.
Lee: There's also been moments of, like, explicit violent economic dispossession, the actual taking and stripping of land.
Hannah-jones: Yes. So we're not taught, like, how systematic it was, that there were generations of people who worked hard to get land, to build businesses, to get ahead, and that again and again they were really systematically wiped out. I mean, we know about Tulsa, which of course the the district of Greenwood was considered one of the wealthiest districts, not just for Black people, but period in the country.
It was called Black Wall Street. Black department stores, 1,200 homes and businesses destroyed. It was actually local officials that gave the armaments to the white mob to destroy it. The thrust of American history has been the taking, like, the refusal to just leave Black people alone, to do what we could do, but the taking of Black resources, of Black lands, of Black gains again and again and again.
Lee: And you think about the the George Floyd case and so many other Black men and women who've been killed by the State. Often they've arrived at that moment from communities conditioned, deprived and starved of equity and wealth, right?
Hannah-jones: Yeah, absolutely. So modern policing, particularly in the south and parts of the northeast, derive from slave patrols. Well, why did slave patrols exist? To protect the property and the income of white Americans. So the type of surveillance and policing that so many Black communities experience is derived directly from the surveillance of enslaved people in order to keep the property that was making white Americans money from running away. That's how George Floyd even comes in contact with the police officer who feels he has the right to kneel on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Lee: When you had the Civil Rights Act in '64 and the Voting Rights Act in '65, a lot of people would say, "Well, that moment right there is the watershed." But did we see the kind of pernicious nature of dislocation and dispossession, that we saw before '64, '65, continue in new forms after?
Hannah-jones: I mean, so, one, let's just make it clear. The '64 and '65 Civil Rights Act were just guaranteeing Black people rights that they had already been guaranteed a hundred years earlier with the 14th and 15th amendment. No other race needed a law to say actually it is illegal for us to tell you you can't use the public library.
You actually do have a right to vote, as constitutionally you had a right to vote under the 15th amendment. As Dr. King said, this was basically bargain basement civil rights, right? This is the baseline of civil rights. What we don't talk about is how, after getting those civil rights laws passed, Dr. King began to focus on economic justice.
And what he said is that that was going to be the real struggle, that this created poverty, that this created segregation, that these created slums are going to have to be addressed if Black people were to truly have full citizenship, and that that's where he was going to start to lose white support, was when he started talking about economic justice.
He's giving a speech to the sanitation workers in Memphis. And he says, "What good is integration? What good is being able to go to a integrated lunch counter if you can't afford the hamburger?" So the gap that existed when Dr. King was marching on Washington exists today. And that should be deeply disturbing to a country that says it believes in equality.
Lee: After the break, closing the racial wealth gap. So Nikole has laid it out, how Black Americans have been prevented from building wealth for centuries. Now let's get to it, the fix, the R-word, reparations.
That word scares some people, Black and white. It seems like crazy talk to some people, especially those who don't understand the depth and gravity and weight of all that this country has been through, in terms of Black folks. But when you say reparations, what does that mean?
Hannah-jones: So if your listeners actually read the article, they will notice that I don't use the word reparations until the very, very end, and that that was a very intentional decision. I wanted to take people through this history, to catalog the arguments, to show the data, every excuse we're given about why Black people struggle financially and that if we just got married or if we just went to college or if we just bought a house or if we just worked harder, like, every argument.
And nothing can overcome wealth that's accumulated over time and our inability to do that, that if you go through all of that and understand that both reparations and Jim Crow were systems of economic exploitation, there's almost no other argument you can come to than that you've got to repair what was done. You've got to repair what was done. So when you ask, "What are reparations?" The root of reparations is repair. It is to fix what was broken, to replace what was lost.
Lee: You know, every time someone brings up reparations, it almost sounds radical and new, every time, every year, every time it comes up. It's like it's a new idea. But Black folks have been fighting for reparations for more than a century, from the beginning, right? This isn't new.
Hannah-jones: Yeah. I mean, Black people, when they were enslaved, were fighting for reparations. During slavery, at the end of slavery, all the way up until, you know, now. And the problem is we have always been a tiny minority in a majority white country that has not wanted or felt that it has any obligation to address what it had done to Black people.
Lee: And so what does that look like? Does it look like a check? Does it look like a fund, an endowment? What is it?
Hannah-jones: I'm gonna put it like this. Let's say I burned down your house. Let's say I took your land. Let's say I worked you for 50 years without a paycheck. And then in the end I said, "I'm gonna give you a scholarship."
Lee: (LAUGH) Right.
Hannah-jones: How would you feel about that?
Lee: Here you go. Here you go.
Hannah-jones: So I think when we understand what was taken, then there can be no argument that is feasible that doesn't end with you saying that, yes, a check. There should be individual cash payments to descendants on top of investment in segregated Black communities and segregated Black schools, on top of strict enforcement of the Civil Rights laws that we already have.
But let's just talk about a scholarship. Getting a college degree will not close the racial wealth gap. The data on this is clear. Matter of fact, Black people who have a college degree are just as likely to be unemployed a white people who don't.
Black people who have a college degree have less wealth than white people with a high school diploma. So, yes, scholarships are great. But scholarships won't close the wealth gap. So when we talk about reparations that want to do everything but give cash, one, I think that's anti-Blackness. Because it is based in the sense that Black people can't be trusted with money. We won't spend it the right way.
But also it is not trying to get to what we are actually dealing with. The crux is the theft of wealth. And so the only way you replace that is with wealth. So does Yale, Princeton, Harvard, University of Virginia, Georgetown owe reparations? Does Aetna? Does JPMorgan Chase, right? These industries, Brooks Brothers, these industries that have ties to the slave industry, do they owe reparations? I certainly think those are worthy conversations to have. But when I'm talking about reparations, I'm talking about by the federal government. And reparations is not about punishing white Americans. The debt is a societal debt.
Everybody pays. And ironically, because reparations would be paid from tax dollars, Black people will be paying into reparations as well, right? And white people need to stop taking this personally. No one is asking individual white people to pay for something that they did not personally do.
But our government is the same government that allowed for slavery. And this is a debt that we owe as a society. I often say, you know, you didn't write the Constitution. But you claim the Constitution and you want the Constitution's protections. Well, you didn't personally own slaves. But you can't be free of that legacy either. We don't just inherit the good parts of our country. We also inherit its debts.
Lee: So who would be entitled to reparations? Who gets the check?
Hannah-jones: Any person who has been living as a Black person. So if you identified as Black ten years prior to any reparations--
Lee: That's the first--
Hannah-jones: --who may--
Lee: --that's the first step though. You can't just be Black, you know, in 2016, (LAUGH) yesterday--
Hannah-jones: That's right.
Lee: --you gotta--
Hannah-jones: You can't, like--
Lee: You better been Black--
Lee: --the whole time. (LAUGH)
Hannah-jones: Take a DNA test and be like, "Oh, I'm 1/100 Black now because of reparations." So, yes, you have to have been living as, like, you are a Black person. You identify as a Black person. And you have been identifying as a Black person for a significant period before any discussion of reparations.
And you have to be able to trace at least one ancestor book to the institution of American slavery. And there are very, very, very few Black people in this country who descended from American reparations that, through genealogy and the 1870 census, would not be able to trace at least one ancestor.
Lee: So, Nikole, we know that there are a lot of white people who might see their, you know, rich neighbor. They might see a celebrity on TV. But that's not the issue here, right?
Hannah-jones: Of course there are exceptional circumstances. Many white Americans perceive the exceptions of Black people, so the exceptional people who have a lot of wealth or who have a lot of fame, and they use those to justify the masses of Black Americans who have almost no wealth.
One thing that I like to say kinda tongue in cheek is, you know, Frederick Douglass was free while four million Black people were enslaved. Would one say that every Black person then could've been free if they only tried hard enough?
These are structural inequalities. And there have always been Black people who have been able to be exceptional. But that is why they are exceptional, is because, for most Black Americans, they are not able to overcome the structural barriers.
Lee: So in terms of, like, large-scale restitution, large-scale reparations, is there any precedent? Is there any kinda, like, model we could use?
Hannah-jones: We know that some native people have received reparations. We know the Japanese who were interned received reparations. And of course the model that everyone talks about is Germany, where Holocaust survivors and their family members received reparations. And it actually took decades or organizing to get that type of reparations for Holocaust survivors. So that should be heartening for those who have been activists for reparations.
Lee: Is there an argument that reparations would not only benefit the descendants of enslaved people, but benefit all Americans?
Hannah-jones: Oh, of course. It is not good for our country to be so vastly unequal, to have such a large percentage of the population, 13% of your population, that has close to zero wealth, that struggles so much financially. That is not good for our country.
If you put this money into Black communities, Black people are gonna be buying houses. They're gonna be investing in their kids' education. They're gonna be starting businesses. They're gonna be doing all of the things that they could have been doing, had we not stripped the ability to accumulate wealth from them.
This will be good for our entire country. We will be a more prosperous country. And I get that, you know, some white people are gonna say, "Well, I don't have much wealth myself. I'm struggling." But that's as if we're saying, "Don't treat throat cancer because somebody over here has diabetes," right?
Like, this is a particular harm done generationally to a particular people who face a people-wide disadvantage that needs to be addressed for the good of all of us. And it's not that I'm arguing reparations is the only thing we should be doing. Because I also believe in a livable wage for all Americans.
I also believe in universal health care for all Americans. I believe that we should have universal child care. We should have a stronger social safety net, to also help poor white Americans. But reparations is to address the distinct and singular struggle of Black Americans. And we should be able, in a country this wealthy, to support all of those things.
Lee: But is this just an intellectual exercise? Or do you believe that this is something that America could actually achieve? Do you think America had the capacity to actually do this, will actually do this? Do you believe it?
Hannah-jones: Hmm. Hmm-hmm. Uh-huh (AFFIRM). I don't think that we will. But I will say this. Bringing up reparations four years ago was considered a fringe issue. Last year mainstream political candidates running for the office of the presidency were talking about reparation. Mainstream reporters at debates were asking candidates about reparations. If there was ever a time where we could get close to getting there, or push to get there, I think this is the time.
Lee: Nikole Hannah-Jones, thank you very much. And I mean this honestly. There are few people I wanted to get on the pod more than you. So this was a pleasure. Thank you so very much.
Hannah-jones: You're welcome, Trymaine. Thank you.
Lee: That was Nikole Hannah-Jones, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. You can read her cover story, titled What is Owed, at NYTimes.com right now and in the magazine this coming weekend. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you tomorrow.