“But What about LeBron, Barack, and Oprah?”

The Racial Wealth Gap and the Case for Reparations

By Christopher S. Campbell

Close up photo of a Monopoly game board.
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Imagine two groups playing a game of Monopoly. The first group makes several fruitful trips around the board and amasses an enormous amount of wealth, enabling them to purchase Park Place and Boardwalk and to build several major hotel chains. As their wealth continues to grow, they are able to purchase more and more property and build their net worth.

The second group has not had a chance to play the game. After some time passes, the first group is forced to give the second group an opportunity to play, and as a good gesture, the first group gives the second group $200. While the second group has the desire and skills to play the game of Monopoly, the truth is that they will never catch up, nor will they ever be equal to the first group due to the unequal amount of time the two groups have been given to play the game.

For centuries, African Americans have been engaged in a real-life Monopoly game that has significantly enriched and empowered whites, allowing them to amass and bequeath wealth to succeeding generations. The current economically “disadvantaged status of contemporary African-Americans cannot be divorced from the historical process that undergirds racial inequality. The cumulative disadvantages of blacks have created cumulative advantages for whites, resulting in a process that has cemented blacks to the bottom of the social hierarchy.”[1]

Slavery and the Exploitation of Labor

Understanding racial wealth inequality requires a consideration of the exploitation of nearly 4,000,000 slaves, which was integral in creating an economy that established the United States of America as a world economic power. According to the economist Jason Hickel, “The United States alone benefitted from a total of 222,505,049 hours of forced labor from 1619 to 1865, which could be worth $97 trillion, by modern estimates.”[2] In 1865, the nation sought to correct the wrongs of two and a half centuries of chattel slavery, and the ravages of a bloody Civil War, with significant federal legislation. President Abraham Lincoln ordered the federal government to implement the Homestead Act of 1866 and to inaugurate the Freedmen’s Bureau. General Tecumseh Sherman was to execute Field Order 15, which promised to deliver 400,000 acres of land and a mule to the formerly enslaved (thus the phrase “40 acres and a mule”). These land grants would offer the formerly enslaved the opportunity to benefit from their own ingenuity and to free themselves from white hegemony, as well as offer them the chance to accumulate resources to bestow to succeeding generations.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was an institution of social uplift that promoted self-reliance with significant funding from the federal government, which rendered aid, housing, medical, and legal assistance to the newly emancipated. John Hope Franklin said of these legislative measures: “It demonstrated the government could administer an extensive program of relief and rehabilitation, and suggested a way in which the nation could grapple with its pressing social problems.”[3] The Freedmen’s Bureau was defunded in 1872, but its short-lived impact cannot be overestimated: against insurmountable odds Blacks were able to develop hospitals, schools, and churches. Its influence on the socioeconomic, educational, political, and spiritual components of life were unrivaled.

Jim Crow and Legalized Segregation

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Unfortunately, the progress of the formerly enslaved was slowed when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, allowing his successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson — a Confederate sympathizer — to decimate the Freedmen’s Bureau and return all land ownership to Confederate soldiers. The death of Lincoln paved the way for a new era of oppression known as Jim Crow, a legalized way to segregate Blacks and whites in public spaces in an effort to reestablish hegemony over Blacks. This racist system would marginalize Blacks for nearly 100 years until the victories of the Civil Rights Movement dismantled it.

While the legal apparatus of Jim Crow was destroyed, racist attitudes and behaviors had already infiltrated the systems and structures of America. The cumulative effects of slavery, Jim Crow policies and practices, and exclusion from New Deal social policies set the Monopoly table in favor of whites, who now have considerable social, political, and economic advantage over contemporary American life. This history of exploitation now lies at the center of American capitalism, resulting in what Manning Marble calls “the systematic underdevelopment of black people.” It is the heart of the racial wealth gap, which has calcified Blacks at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.

The Racial Wealth Gap — And what about Oprah?

Centuries of white supremacy and racism have resulted in “an overwhelming amount of evidence of a growing disparity between blacks and whites on basic socioeconomic indicators,”[4] which has led historians, economists, and social scientists to give considerable attention to the growing problem of the racial wealth gap. Many Black communities are impoverished, schools are underperforming, and health disparities have been exacerbated, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some whites believe that Black poverty and economic disadvantage has nothing to do with the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow; rather, Blacks are behind because they lack ability and motivation. Therefore, systemic and structural inequities — either historic or contemporary — are not to blame for their disadvantaged position.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James signals to a teammate during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Others point to the financial success of a few and ask: “What about people like LeBron James, Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey? They each came from broken homes and poverty, and now they have a combined net worth of $600 billion!” They imply two additional questions: First, if systemic and structural racism and the racial wealth gap were a reality, then how were they able to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps? And second, why can’t other Blacks do the same?”

America’s infatuation with Black celebrity has blinded us to collective Black inequity. It has created the illusion of group progress while at the same time masking Black failure and inequality. As people like LeBron, Barack, and Oprah ascend socially and economically, some believe that there is no need to tackle the issues of systemic and structural racism, which undergirds racial wealth disparity. W.E.B. DuBois coined the phrase the decadent veil,[5] an idea that postulates “Black America through a lens of group theory and seeks to explain the illusion of group success that has taken form over a thirty-year span. The new veil of economics has allowed a broad swath of America to become desensitized to Black poverty, but also hypnotized by Black celebrity, and this distorts the outside community’s view of Black America’s actual financial reality.”[6]

Black Wealth and Reparations

In this article, I have asserted that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and exclusion from New Deal social policies all set the Monopoly table to the advantage of white America. The economic and social successes of Black celebrities such as LeBron, Barack, and Oprah are no measurement for Black economic progress. Therefore, the only way to justly and adequately close the racial wealth gap is a comprehensive reparations program that seeks to undo systems and structures and offers individualized payments to the American descendants of slaves.

Photo by Emilio Takas on Unsplash

Exactly how dire is the financial status of Black America? According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, a typical white family has a net worth of $171,000 — nearly 10 times that of a Black family, at $17,150.[7] The Institute for Policy Studies forecast the median wealth of Blacks will be $0 by 2053 if the current economic trends continue.[8]

This chasm in wealth reveals how accumulated injustices have created a disadvantaged status for contemporary African Americans. From slavery to Jim Crow, to redlining and school segregation, exclusion from New Deal social policies to mass incarceration, there has been a concerted effort to keep Blacks marginalized. Discriminatory policies that have consistently hindered African Americans from having the opportunity to fully realize the American dream.

Some assert that African Americans could improve their financial positioning by enhancing their financial literacy, increasing educational achievement, employing better saving and spending habits, or starting a business — and this would effectively close the racial wealth gap. While these principles and practices are important, they place the burden of responsibility on African Americans to correct a problem they did not create — nor would these options close the racial wealth gap. No autonomous actions or group decisions that African Americans can make will close the gap created by years of being shut out of the real-life Monopoly game. The solution requires broad and imaginative policies that focus on pure reparations, wealth creation, and undoing the many underlying structural contributors to the wealth gap.

According to a Gallup Poll, attitudes toward reparations remain divided, with most Americans (67%) stating the government should not make such payments, but almost a third believing it should, including a solid majority of Black Americans (73%) supporting the proposal. Among party lines, Republicans overwhelmingly (92%) disapprove of such a measure, while Democrats are divided, with 49 percent against the idea, even when African Americans continue to be their most loyal voting constituency.[9] Much of the division over reparations is possibly built on the failure to understand the history of slavery, the damages of Jim Crow segregation, exclusion from New Deal social policies, and the perniciousness of racism that continues to flow through the systems and structures of America.

Reparations is not a handout, nor is it holding individuals accountable for something in which they played no direct part, although many benefited from it in the form of inherited wealth. Rather, reparations is a justice claim against the United States federal government, because the government created the legal conditions and authoritative framework that allowed these atrocities to take place.

The only plausible reasons the United States has not already taken seriously a reparations package to African Americans are the insidious racism that has veiled itself in sophisticated arguments and an outright denial of the fact that the economy has been built on exploited slave labor. The success of a few Black people in sports, entertainment, and politics should not distract us from the ongoing, deepening wealth gap that has defined this country. The United States federal government must be held responsible for its involvement in, support of, and direct benefit from slave labor, and must address the irreparable harm done to its descendants. The call to reparations deserves to be presented and heard in the judicial, executive, and legislative bodies that represent all Americans.

Christopher S. Campbell
Christopher S. Campbell

Christopher S. Campbell is a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Duke Divinity School. His research interests include economic development and educational attainment, and his forthcoming book with Christian Faith Publishers is Racism, Reform, and Reparations. He is the lead pastor of The Plaza Church in Charlotte, N.C., and is a church consultant for Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century and 20/20 Leadership, a partnership with the Black Church Initiative.

[1] Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York: Routledge Press, 1997), pg. 51.

[2] Jason Hickel, The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets (London, England: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), pg. 180.

[3] John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), pg. 309.

[4] Charles P. Henry, “The Politics of Racial Reparations,” The Journal of Black Studies 34.2 (2003):131–152.

[5] “The decadent veil” refers to the racial duality Blacks experience due to their racialized oppression and devaluation in a white-dominated society.

[6] Antonio Moore, “The Decadent Veil: Black America’s Wealth Illusion,” The Huffington Post, December 6, 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-decadent-veil-black-income-inequality_b_5646472 (accessed Jun. 30, 2020).

[7] Kriston McIntosh, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jay Shambaugh, “Examining the Black-White Wealth Gap,” The Brookings Institution, February 27, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/ (accessed Mar. 25, 2020).

[8] Dedrick Asante Muhammad, Chuck Collins, Josh Hokie and Emanuel Nieves, “The Road To Zero Wealth: How The Racial Wealth Divide Is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class,” Prosperity Now and The Institute for Policy Studies, September 3, 2017, https://prosperitynow.org/files/PDFs/road_to_zero_wealth.pdf (accessed October 8, 2019).

[9] Mohamed Younis, “As Redress for Slavery, Americans Oppose Cash Payments,” Gallup, July 29, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/261722/redress-slavery-americans-oppose-cash-reparations.aspx (accessed Jan. 26, 2020).

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