In “good” times, the median income for white households in Charleston is nearly double than that of black families. Black people in Charleston are twice as likely to be unemployed than white people. And, black men make up the largest portion of repeat offenders with long stays in the Charleston County jail.
The City of Charleston, drenched in its own responsibility for racial inequality through slavery and Jim Crow, is tip-toeing toward efforts at equity. Other cities have followed suit.
Some view Charleston’s formal apology for slavery in 2018 as a positive first step toward repair. Others are less keen on the idea of the local government taking on the financial responsibility conventionally tied to reparations — direct cash payments to those impacted by the enslavement of Africans.
There is, however, agreement that a debt is owed 157 years after emancipation.
“We can’t apologize and do nothing,” Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said.
The idea of reparations for slavery dates back to the 1700s, said longtime College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers, though people may think of it as a modern phenomenon.
“They think it’s something that’s recent, maybe, or perhaps goes back to the civil rights era, but it really does have longer roots than that,” said Powers, who is also the interim CEO and president of the International African American Museum in Charleston.
In a modern context, Duke University professor William Darity, author of From Here to Equality, argues, “The primary goal of a reparations initiative must be elimination of racial wealth differences in the United States.”
The era of Jim Crow ushered in legalized discrimination nationwide. Redlining used race to segregate neighborhoods and locked black Americans out of the financial system. Without access to the traditional wealth-building mechanisms, disparities grew.
“Today’s racial wealth gap is perhaps the most glaring legacy of American slavery and the violent economic dispossession that followed,” journalist Trymaine Lee wrote for The New York Times‘ 1619 Project last year.
That legacy persists in the Charleston area, where the median white household income is $69,032 and just $37,575 for black households, and the black unemployment rate hovers around twice that of white residents, according to the National Urban League’s most recent Equality Index in 2017.
Economic realities are compounded by present-day policies, according to Frank Knaack, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
“We have those very tangible examples of the outcome of our racist and exploitative history and those kinds of concrete ways. But then also the kind of everyday injustices that pile on to that because of our racist policing,” said Knaack.
A 2019 racial bias audit of the Charleston Police Department found disparities in law enforcement, including in traffic stops that ended in warnings and the use of force by police. Data from Charleston County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee’s 2019 report show that black men make up 63 percent of long-term repeat offenders at the county detention center — census estimates put the local population at 26 percent black.
In July, the city council of Asheville, North Carolina, unanimously passed a resolution that called for “community reparations” initiatives, but stopped short of direct payments. Evanston, Illinois, is funding reparations for African Americans using cannabis-tax revenue — an acknowledgement of the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs and redlining on black residents in the Chicago suburb.
Charleston’s 2018 apology for slavery did not broach the topic of reparations, but it aimed goals at underlying economic challenges. This June, council voted unanimously to finalize the creation of a new Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation to chip away at those challenges.
“The apology is the genesis for all of this,” said Gregorie, who championed the apology resolution.
The commission will meet for the first time in the coming weeks with a clear mission, Gregorie said: “To eradicate the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow. Real simple.”
Gregorie said it would be premature to talk about reparations as a part of the work of the new commission, which he co-chairs with Councilman Jason Sakran.
The apology was a valuable baseline to discuss how to “correct what was done,” said Millicent Brown, a retired professor and lifelong civil rights activist.
“People were upset about the apology not having more teeth. But it was an important step because it tried to help people understand the City of Charleston was saying we had policies in place that were overtly racist and discriminatory,” she said.
Ideas for implementing reparations span the gamut from simple ways to make everyday retail purchases cheaper to hypothetical payouts that would add up to trillions of dollars in South Carolina alone.
“If compensation is due, one of the ways we can approach that is through various forms of the ‘African American discount,’ ” said retired professor Wilmot Fraser, using a friend’s checkout line joke to frame his thinking on reparations. That principle may not be too far off if applied to local taxes or some kind of economic development, he believes.
Robert Ross, who calls himself “King David” after a DNA test revealed his lineage includes Pharaoh Ramses III, has a slightly less-modest approach: $2 million for every African-American man, woman and child in South Carolina. “And that’s just a down payment,” he said.
Whatever form they take, reparations for slavery can’t be separated from ongoing work by governments to eliminate non-economic disparities, according to Brown.
“It’s not an either or thing,” she said. “America owes black folks, there’s no question. The question just becomes, what are the ways in which that debt is going to get paid?”
Congressman Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 leader in the U.S. House, has been resistant to cash reparations, pointing to his 10-20-30 plan as an example of an economic development measure that can benefit African Americans.
“I’m never going to individualize reparations. It needs to be applied institutionally, across the board,” Clyburn told The Washington Post in February. “It’s not just about black people,” he said. “But it is also about black people.”
The misdeeds of Charleston’s forefathers, however, may be so grave that they make local reparations a nonstarter.
“The actions that were taken in Charleston have ramifications far, far beyond Charleston,” said Darity. “So it would be virtually impossible for Charleston to pay reparations for the consequences of Charleston’s actions.”
Zeroing out the racial wealth gap, Darity said, could cost $10-$12 trillion nationwide, making piecemeal solutions untenable.
But without financial reparations on a local level, leaders can still take action to help reverse disparities.
“Sure, the City of Charleston and other entities have culpability. And now, they are required to make some recompense also,” CofC’s Powers said.
“Do whatever you can do to reverse the kinds of historical wrongs that are associated with the policies that you have executed as a city,” Darity advised.
Darity is hopeful that reparations will continue to be in the national conversation about reversing those historical wrongs.
“This seems like a more optimistic moment than any I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said.