'More hopeful than ever:' Biden's lead on racial equity is a promising signal for reparations, experts say

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Bre'Anna Grant
·6 min read
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reparations protest sign
A large crowd of protesters wearing masks and carrying signs that say, "Reparations Now" as they walk through neighborhoods at the Black Lives Matter protest in Bayside, Queens. Ira L. Black - Corbis/Contributor/Getty Images
  • During the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden was a proponent of studying reparations for Black Americans.

  • After taking office, his administration took multiple executive actions to advance racial equity.

  • "The federal government has the largest role to play," Rashawn Ray, a Brookings Institution fellow, told Insider.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Last month, Evanston, Illinois became the first U.S. city to pay reparations to its Black residents. The Evanston City Council voted 8-1 to provide $400,000 in housing assistance and mortgage relief to eligible residents through the City's Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program.

"This historic vote is the culmination of nearly two years of community input, conversation, and hard work, but it follows decades of harmful policies and practices that impact Black Evanston families to this day," 5th Ward Ald. Robin Rue Simmons said in a press release.

It continued: "While we acknowledge we have a long way to go to repair all of the damages done by racism, we also know this program will make a real and lasting difference in the lives of some of those harmed by past injustices and will set the stage for additional reparative measures in the future."

Reparations were promoted as a means to redress or repair inequalities against by Black people in America, namely those who are the descendants of slaves. They would address the wealth gap between Black and white Americans that, in the fourth quarter of 2020, left white households with a total net worth that was over 20 times that of total wealth held by Black households; the high poverty rate for Black Americans, which was nearly 19% compared to 7.3% of white Americans in 2019, according to US census data; the low homeownership rate of about 43% in comparison to 73% of white Americans; and racial disparities in healthcare and incarceration.

Before reparations emerged as a key debate issue during 2020 during the Democratic primary, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced Legislation H.R.40 in January 2019 that would fund a commission to study and develop proposals for providing slavery reparations to African Americans.

"The commission would study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery," the legislation reads. Additionally, the bill would address the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity" of slavery.

But after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, protests that consumed the summer of 2020 heightened the call for reparations to Black Americans who were already hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Reparations re-entered the national conversation during the summer of 2020

Legislation around reparations gained more momentum in mainstream politics as Democrats worked to confront racial inequality, according to The Hill. But it faced strong resistance from many Republications and few black leaders who dismiss the idea as "impractical."

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, told Fox News last June that reparations for Black Americans are "not the right approach" to help level the playing field in response to BET's founder Robert Johnson saying $14 trillion in reparations would help end the riots and lootings following Floyd's death.

"I don't think reparations help level the playing field, it might help more eruptions on the playing field," Scott said. "The conversation about reparations is not a conversation I have ever been in support of and I do not support now," Scott said.

Rashawn Ray, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Insider that now is the time for reparations.

"Reparations are to make amends and repair a wrong by providing restitution to the descendants of enslaved Black Americans," said Ray.

Experts say reparations could cost the US government trillions of dollars - anywhere between $10 and $13 trillion. Trevor Smith, a writer and communications specialist who conducts research on the history of reparations within the US, told Insider that reparations would cost around $12 trillion for Black Americans.

"A reparations package that would fulfill the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule to Black Americans would cost around $12 trillion, giving each descendant of the enslaved $254,782," Smith wrote in an op-ed.

Proposals for reparations have included cash payments, tuition remission, student loan forgiveness, down payment and housing restoration grants, and small business grants.

"These are wealth-building strategies to tackle social institutions that are most persistent at creating and maintaining racial disparities," Ray wrote in an op-ed for Insider.

'The federal government has the largest role to play'

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden was a proponent of studying reparations, and the White House confirmed last month that President Joe Biden continued to back a study of the issue.

In a March episode of "Axios on HBO," White House senior advisor Cedric Richmond said it's feasible for President Joe Biden to move forward on combating racial inequities while Congress studies reparations for slavery.

"We have to start breaking down systemic racism and barriers that have held people of color back and especially African-Americans who were enslaved," said Richmond. "We have to do stuff now to improve the plight, status, future, and empowerment of Black people all around the country."

Shortly after taking office, Biden issued several executive actions aimed at advancing racial equity, which included a directive for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to initiate a plan "to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies that have contributed to wealth inequality."

"He understands we don't need a study to take action right now on systemic racism, so he wants to take actions within his own government in the meantime," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Insider the executive actions are a good step to address the issues and damages brought on by an unfair government.

Perry said he's "more hopeful than ever" for reparations to be implemented now that Biden is in office.

Ray told Insider that he's also hopeful that reparations might be done by Biden and although "executive actions are rarely ever enough, they are a start to allocate and shift resources to address the issue."

"There will never be enough to make up for the racial wrongs of the past and present. But the federal government has the largest role to play," Ray said.

Read the original article on Insider