In my first novel, a family retraces their lineage in order to become eligible for the nation's first federal reparations program for black Americans. When I sold my novel in 2021, publishers presented it as “speculative fiction, but only slightly.” I hadn't specifically identified that genre, but I could see that it made sense: Until then, only one American city, Evanston, Illinois, had provided reparations in the form of housing subsidies. The idea that the United States could ever collectively support a national policy of reparations for black people seemed, well, the stuff of fiction.
Since then, task forces and reparations commissions have been created in California, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. State and city reparations efforts offer a unique opportunity: They can look at specific harms perpetrated in a community, such as redlining or wrongful drug convictions, and offer reparations to the citizens and families who lived there. In Evanston, for example, reparations are funded by revenue generated by a cannabis tax. If you can prove that you were a black resident of African descent between 1919 and 1969 or that you are a direct descendant of one, or that you experienced housing discrimination related to city policies after 1969, then you are eligible to receive a payment. As of August, the city had distributed just over $1 million, and more funds are on the way.
But what if you don't live in a community that seeks reparations? Slavery was a complex multistate system enabled by the federal government and protected by a broad body of law. Later, the same government promoted and supported segregationist policies and failed to uphold the values of the 14th and 15th Amendments throughout the Jim Crow South. To address systemic inequalities embedded in federal law, a federal reparations policy is required. One city, even multiple cities or states, cannot compensate people for what an entire nation has done.
I decided to write about reparations after researching the racial wealth gap, the statistics of which continue to paint a picture of widespread systemic failure. According to the Federal Reserve's 2022 Survey of Consumer Finances, the typical white family has about six times as much wealth as the typical Black family, even though between 2019 and 2022 the wealth of the typical Black family increased about twice as much as that of the typical black family. white families during the same period. The black-white gap in homeownership has changed little for decades; In 2021, according to the National Association of Realtors, the Black homeownership rate was 44 percent compared to 72.7 percent among white Americans. White college graduates have more than seven times more wealth than Black college graduates. If the growing wealth gap between black and white Americans is believed to be worth closing (and, clearly, not everyone does), then it is difficult to read these statistics without intuiting that federal intervention must be part of the equation.