Georgia Southern University

Researchers find whites underestimate the cost of being black

Reparation for descendants of slaves is an ongoing issue in the United States.

Five years ago a federal lawsuit filed in New York City on behalf of 35 million African-Americans sought financial reparation for the value of “stolen” labor and unjust enrichment resulting from slavery. The lawsuit was dismissed.

This year the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a petition asking the Court to hear a case against 17 major financial institutions for their role in financing, underwriting and supporting slavery. The suit asks the court to permit slave descendants to bring actions for restitution against the corporations that allegedly earned profits enslaving Africans in violation of Northern antislavery laws.

The 2002 lawsuit estimated slaves performed as much as $40 million worth of unpaid labor between 1790 and 1860. The current value of that labor could be as high as $1.4 trillion, so it’s no wonder that many people strongly oppose payment of reparations to descendants of slaves.

Georgia Southern University economics professor Gregory Brock and four colleagues, two from Ohio State University and two from Harvard University, examined the resistance to reparations in their recent paper titled ‘The Cost of Being Black: White Americans’ Perceptions and the Question of Reparations.” The paper was published in the DuBois Review, a publication of the W.E. B. Dubois Institute for African and African American Research.

‘This was a very revealing study of nearly 1,000 white participants,” said Brock, who teaches in Georgia Southern’s School of Economic Development. ‘What we found is that white Americans’ resistance to reparations for descendants of slaves stems from fundamentally estimating the true economic cost of being black.”

In a review of the literature, researchers found disparity between blacks and whites on a number of social indicators. For blacks: infant mortality rates are 146 percent higher; chances of life imprisonment is 447 percent higher; rate of death by homicide is 521 percent higher; lack of health insurance coverage is 42.3 percent more likely; median income rate is 55.3 percent lower; and poverty rate is 173 percent higher.

After looking at these social indicators, the researchers used contingent valuation, an economic method designed to elicit cost/benefit comparison, to examine the relationship between whites’ perceptions of disparity with blacks and whites’ support for slave-descendant reparations

In a series of six related studies, nearly 1,000 white survey participants responded to three questions:
1. What amount of cash would you require to continue your life as a black man or black woman?

2. What amount of cash would you require to live your life as a resident of another state?

3. What amount of cash would you require to quit watching TV for the rest of your life?

The median race-change request was $1,500; the median state-change request was $1,000; and the median no-TV request was $1,000,000.

Each of the six related studies looked at a variety of issues beyond these basic questions, but it became clear to the researchers over the course of their study that the participants did not perceive social costs being borne by blacks as particularly burdensome. Importantly, when a participant requested a larger dollar amounts to change his race, his support for reparations increased.

‘As the courts continue to review the concept of reparations for slavery, our findings will provide greater understanding of why opposition exists,” said Brock. ‘We hope our findings will inform policy discussions and continue to illuminate the relationship between racial disparities and reparations.”

In addition to Brock, researchers include Philip J. Mazzocco, Department of Psychology, Ohio State University at Mansfield; Timothy C. Brock, Department of Psychology, Ohio State University; Kristina R. Olson, Department of Psychology, Harvard University; and Mahzarin R. Banaji, Department of Psychology, Harvard University.

Share this:
Office of Marketing & Communications • PO Box 8055, Statesboro, GA 30460 • (912) 478-6397 •