“40 acres and a mule” could have been the federal government’s monumental move to redistribute wealth to formerly enslaved Black people after the Civil War. But after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, this promise was forgotten. Now, 156 years later, “40 acres and a mule” remains a battle cry for Black Americans who demand reparations for centuries of injustice.  

UC Santa Cruz’s Institute for Social Transformation (IST) held the event “Reparations for Black Americans: The Road to Racial Equality in California and Beyond” on April 15. The event was moderated by Chris Benner, director of the IST at UCSC, and invited a wide array of authors, economic justice activists, and federal politicians as panelists.

”We open the discussion by defining reparations as a program of acknowledgement, redress some closure for grievous injustice,” said Duke professor and co-author of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” William Darity Jr. “But the general characteristics include the following acknowledgement, which is a recognition on the part of the culpable party, that a great wrong has been done, and a commitment to engage in restitution or redress for that wrong.”

Speakers discussed the reach of Black oppression nationwide, including in California. A. Kristen Mullen, panelist and co-author of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” brought up UC Berkeley’s history as an attractive place for Confederate supporters in the late 19th century. She described the administration’s tendency to hire ex-Rebel professors, and the Confederate presence in Santa Clara, Monterey, San Francisco, and San Joaquin Counties.

The conversation shifted focus to significant milestones in the fight for reparations that have occurred recently. President of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development Anne Price spoke about what she was looking for in the recently formed California task force on reparations.

“I’m hoping that [the task force] can bring into view how we’re going to think about the role that state or local communities play in this federal issue,” said Price. “[The task force] provides opportunities to understand the processes and the visioning that people may have in thinking about what reparations can do.”

In the wake of nationwide protests calling for racial justice and police reform following the death of George Floyd, California established the nation’s first state task force to study the prospect of reparations in Sept. 2020. On April 14, 2021, a House committee recommended, for the first time, the creation of a commission to consider providing Black Americans with reparations and a “national apology” for centuries of discrimination. The bill was labeled H.R. 40 after the unfulfilled Civil War-era promise made to thousands of Black families.

Speakers emphasized the role of the federal government in providing reparations, not only local and state governments. The word has been used to describe local actions for racial equity, but the reparations discussed by Mullen and Darity highlights the federal government as the culpable party.

Darity believes the racial wealth gap indicates the extent to which reparations are necessary. Black people constitute 12 percent of the population, yet hold less than two percent of the nation’s wealth. He explained that an elimination of the racial wealth gap would require at least $11 trillion. The combined budgets of all 50 states would only add up to $3.1 trillion, meaning the states alone cannot cover the cost to eliminate the gap.  

“The federal government has the capability [to provide reparations],” Darity said. “Moreover, when there have been atrocities at the local or state level, the federal government either has been complicit, or has looked the other way. We certainly encourage states and localities to take steps to improve the conditions that exist there, but the compensation for the damages requires federal action.”

Congresswoman Barbara Lee also joined the event. She talked about the H.R. 40’s current progress in Congress, which was one of the first bills she co-sponsored during her first term in 1998.

“The bill can be amended as it moves. It can be tweaked, more input can be brought forth, and I know that there’s not 100 percent buy-in on every part of the bill. But that’s the political dynamic that we have to deal with,” Lee said. “We have to write it in a way that we can at least get something done and tweak it and change it and refine it, as the legislative process moves forward.”

Mullen and Darity stated that due to the bill’s current limitations, they are not broadly in support of H.R. 40. They expressed the conditions they believe should be in H.R. 40 and their problems with the bill.

In “From Here to Equality,” A. Kirsten Mullen and William Darity, Jr., argue that a federal reparations bill should have certain key features:
1. Designates Black Americans who have at least one ancestor enslaved in the United States as the eligible recipients.
2. Targets the racial wealth gap, now approaching a difference of $850,000 in net worth between the average Black and white households. Elimination of that gap will require a federal expenditure of $10 to $12 trillion, mandated by Congress. The racial wealth gap is the prime economic indicator of the cumulative, intergenerational impact of white supremacy, from slavery to the present moment.
3. Prioritizes direct payments to eligible recipients. It must give individual recipients maximal discretion over the use of the funds.

Darity added that a danger of H.R. 40 is that the public has no idea what the commission is ultimately going to recommend. Lee responded, saying that what Mullen and Darity are laying out is what will likely take place. 

Though the pressure for reparations is at a federal level, Benner suggested ways that individuals in the university can take part in the fight for equality.

“We can play a really important role in advocating at a federal level for reparations. So what does that look like? Wherever students live, reach out to [your local representative] to get them to endorse it,” Benner said. “Really look at the legacies and structures of racial inequality that continue to exist at UC Santa Cruz in our structures of knowledge and teaching in our local communities, and try and address those head on.”