9/22/2020 Peter Durantine

‘Stratification Economics’ Founder Discusses Slave Reparations at Van Dyck Lecture

Economist William Darity Jr., founder of “stratification economics,” where social classes within a society are separated along economic lines, discussed his theory and how it applies to reparations for the descendants of slaves at a Sept. 21 Franklin & Marshall College virtual event.

In delivering the Department of Economics’ annual Wayne K. Van Dyck Lecture, Darity said he developed his theory in order to establish a better understanding of the rationality between intergroup economics than what was asserted by long-considered research.

“Stratification economics is having a higher relative position with respect to a relevant comparison group,” he said. “This is largely consistent with research that economists have done on happiness, where it’s been learned over the years that people feel greater degrees of satisfaction or greater degrees of being well-off as long as they feel like they are doing better than their relevant peer or comparison group. This usually involves having more stuff than your neighbors.”

  • Economist William Darity discussed his theory, "stratification economics," for this year's Wayne K. Van Dyck Lecture. Economist William Darity discussed his theory, "stratification economics," for this year's Wayne K. Van Dyck Lecture. Image Credit: Duke University The Graduate School

Darity said, “One of the objectives I had in mind in beginning the work in stratification economics was to ask, ‘Is there a somewhat fixed or structural context in which people are making these comparisons?’” 

He used a ladder metaphor to explain further: “If you are moving up and down the ladder, and it’s changing which individuals are your immediate sources of comparison, is the ladder itself somewhat stable? Somewhat fixed? The argument that emerges out of stratification economics is, ‘Yes, there are somewhat fixed ladders or structures that can serve as a context for these kinds of comparisons.”

The Samuel Dubois Cook Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, Darity also serves as professor of African and African American Studies, economics, and as the director of Duke’s Samuel Dubois Cook Center of Social Equity. 

To illustrate how economic stratification applies to the privileges enjoyed by a dominant group over a subordinate group, Darity described how members of Group A would always have a relative advantage over members of Group B.

“All whites in the United States, regardless of where they are located on the white ladder of hierarchy, regardless of their class position among whites in the United States, every one of them will have a greater degree of safety than all blacks in encounters with the police, and they will have a greater sense of security in their encounters with the criminal justice system,” he said. 

This same example applies to the wealth gap that exists between white and Black Americans today. The unfulfilled promise of 40 acres to every Black American freed in 1865 sowed the seeds of that gap, according to Darity’s newly published book, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” which he co-authored with A. Kirsten Mullen. 

The authors argue the payment of that debt is at least 155 years overdue, and should be paid in the 21st century to the descendants of slaves as acknowledgment, redress and closure, which defines the reparations process.

The argument for redress is the institution of slavery that existed in the U.S., the Jim Crow laws that emerged after the Civil War and resulted in the loss of Black lives and Black properties “that the American government ignored,” and the recent mass incarceration of Blacks, Darity said.

 It also was during this period when America experienced the great disparity in wealth between whites and Blacks, he said.

“Those wealth differentials are the consequence of social policy,” Darity said. “Social policy that operates on behalf of Group A, maintaining or extending an advantaged position. In the U.S. context, if we think about Black-white wealth differentials, the origins of those differentials really occur in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.”

While Blacks never realized the 40-acre land-grant restitution, “At the same time, many, many white Americans were the recipients of 160-acre land grants under the terms of the Homestead Acts in the western parts of the United States,” he said.   

Three student moderators—senior Ayana Stuart, junior Chantal Zossougbo and sophomore Hulamatou Dukureh—asked and fielded questions about reparations for slave descendants that appeared to surprise Darity.  

“It’s interesting, all the questions are about reparations. That wasn’t the point of my talk, but that’s cool,” he said. “I think of reparations as healing the wound. Reparations don’t solve everything, but they do attempt to heal the wound.”

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