By now you’ve read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ call for reparations, but I wanted to highlight just a couple of things that should inform the context in which we white people discuss any of these issues.
It has been more than 150 years since the white planter class last called up the slave patrols and deputized every white citizen to stop, question and subdue any black person who came across their paths in order to control and surveil a population who refused to submit to their enslavement. It has been 150 years since white Americans could enforce slave laws that said white people acting in the interest of the planter class would not be punished for killing a black person, even for the most minor alleged offense. Those laws morphed into the black codes, passed by white Southern politicians at the end of the Civil War to criminalize behaviors like not having a job. Those black codes were struck down, then altered and over the course of decades eventually transmuted into stop-and-frisk, broken windows and, of course, qualified immunity. The names of the mechanisms of social control have changed, but the presumption that white patrollers have the legal right to kill black people deemed to have committed minor infractions or to have breached the social order has remained.
On income and wealth:
As we focus on police violence, we cannot ignore an even starker indication of our societal failures: Racial income disparities today look no different than they did the decade before King’s March on Washington. In 1950, according to a forthcoming study by the economists Moritz Schularick, Moritz Kuhn and Ulrike Steins in The Journal of Political Economy, black median household income was about half that of white Americans, and today it remains so. More critical, the racial wealth gap is about the same as it was in the 1950s as well. The typical black household today is poorer than 80 percent of white households. “No progress has been made over the past 70 years in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households,” according to the study.
And yet most Americans are in an almost pathological denial about the depth of black financial struggle. That 2019 Yale University study, called “The Misperception of Racial Economic Inequality,” found that Americans believe that black households hold $90 in wealth for every $100 held by white households. The actual amount is $10.
“The cause of the gap must be found in the structural characteristics of the American economy, heavily infused at every point with both an inheritance of racism and the ongoing authority of white supremacy,” the authors of the Duke study write. “There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the wealth gap. For the gap to be closed, America must undergo a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies.”