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"The Economic Implications of WCAR,"

by Samuel L. Myers, Jr. January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

There are significant economic aspects of the final outcomes of the Durban World Conference Against Racism. Two sets of outcomes are of relevance for people of color in the United States. One can be found in the official documents, or at least the versions of the official documents in wide circulation, adopted on September 8 and distributed on September 19. Another can be found in the Durban experience itself.

Declaration and Programme of Action

History was made with the publication and acknowledgement that slavery and its aftermath are partly the cause of current racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance. It is worth repeating the relevant language that has such economic significance:

We … acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are crimes against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade, and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and peoples of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences. (Declaration, p. 10)

This historic language explicitly contradicts the prevailing economic wisdom in America. The overwhelming view among economic analysts is that there is no direct empirical linkage relating the slave trade, slavery and its aftermath to current disadvantages faced by African Americans and other people of color. Whereas there may in fact be wide racial differences in human capital, family structure and family background, ownership of homes and businesses, access to credit, performance on standardized test scores, income, wages, earnings, and net assets, there is no conclusive proof that current differentials stem wholly or in part from the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, or its aftermath. Indeed, if there were such proof, black efforts to extract reparations from government or private bodies would be far more vigorous and immensely more successful than they have been.

One reason for the conventional economic wisdom that there is no direct linkage between slavery, the slave trade and current racism and racial discrimination is that much analysis of racial gaps in current economic outcomes is ahistorical. Take, for example, the problem of racial disparities in credit markets. No one disagrees that blacks are more likely to be turned down for loans than whites. No one disagrees that blacks, on average, have less impressive credit records than whites – or at least no one who has seen the published data on these indicators disagrees.

There seems to be, however, a widely held perception that all of this has always been so. Sheila Ards and I point out in our recent paper in the October 2001 American Behavioral Scientist ("The Color of Money") that things have not always been so, and that specific credit institutions evolved after slavery that excluded black participation and directly contributed to differences in black and white savings behaviors. One can even point to such thriving traditional credit institutions in West Africa as the susu that largely failed to survive the transatlantic journey of black Americans, as evidence that slavery destroyed the ability of African Americans to produce credible behaviors in the credit market. To say that differences in consumption and savings behaviors explain poor black credit in the current era ignores how those differences came about in the first place. Amazingly, studies and data from the post-Reconstruction era have survived, permitting reexamination of the proximate relationship between actions and policies rooted in slavery and its aftermath and current outcomes. A wealth of data will become available shortly through the University of Minnesota’s Integrated Public Use Microsample (IPUMS) Project for examining individual asset and business ownership from late 19th century through the early 20th century, establishing more concretely the linkages between prior racism and current racial inequality.

The language in the UN Declaration will tremendously aid efforts to move into a genuine understanding of how the slave trade and slavery transmitted racism and racial discrimination into the current era and will provide new economic justifications for specific remedies based on these direct linkages. An example relates to the underrepresentation of minority businesses in procurement and contracting. From the Supreme Court’s Croson decision on, it has been presumed that evidence of “general societal” discrimination was insufficient to warrant implementation of a race-based set-aside program or similar affirmative action initiative designed to enhance the opportunities for minority firms to contract with state or local governments. But the language of the Declaration opens a novel approach to examining what lies behind “general societal discrimination.” Policy analysts and applied economists will be influenced to explore historical data sets and the linkages between government actions and policies conceived and implemented under slavery and the current inequality in access to government outlays.

At last, there is a broad-scale, international acknowledgement that current racism and racial discrimination has its roots in prior slavery.

The Durban Experience

The remedies section of the final version of the Programme of Action is a weakened and largely ceremonial series of statements. There is no specific call for reparations for prior wrongs associated with the transatlantic slave trade, slavery or its aftermath. Persons looking to either the Declaration or the Programme of Action for guidance on pursuing claims of reparations for the wrongs of slavery and the slave trade will be disappointed. But there was more to Durban than the official document. Most compelling was the convening of a wide array of Non-Governmental Organizations that have created a new, visible and powerful international lobby capable of forcing the remedies question into the open. Whether you are in favor or opposed to reparations as the appropriate remedy for current racism and racial discrimination rooted in prior slavery and the slave trade, the matter is now before us. And it is before us in the most compelling of ways. There is a better understanding now than ever of the global and persistent pattern of current racism and racial discrimination; there is better documentation now than ever before of the linkages of the slave trade enterprise across national and international boundaries.

American economists have for about 20 years conducted a largely obscure intellectual debate about the measurement of the costs of slavery and the computation of the foregone wages (appropriately discounted and calibrated) experienced by slaves themselves. This extended exercise has yielded a variety of estimates of the debt owed African Americans. My favorite number is based on the work of University of North Carolina and Duke University economist William Darity. The number is in the trillions of dollars. Until now, however, the discussion has been largely an abstract one of little practical importance to poor African Americans themselves. But now, with poor Afro-Brazilians, poor Afro-Peruvians, and peoples of African descent in the Caribbean, Central America and throughout Latin America explicitly calling for repayment for prior misdeeds from slavery, the stakes have risen for settlement of the African American debt as well.

Put differently, the Durban experience has galvanized dozens of American-based organizations to pursue remedies arising from slavery and the slave trade. Economic analysis shows that these debts are huge. Political analysis shows, though, that, until recently, there was no hope at all for putting this issue into the national agenda. But the Durban experience and the international and global perspective afforded the US participants strengthened diverse local and national efforts to forge a reparations initiative.

On two different levels – the official documents and the Durban experience – there has been a transformation that has significant economic implications. The power of an international statement linking slavery and the slave trade to current racism and the force of an international coalition of peoples of color may well lead to serious and sustained efforts to place on the national agenda repayment of America’s debt stemming from slavery.

Samuel L. Myers, Jr. is the Roy Wilkins Chair Profrssor of Human Relations and Social Justice at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Univervsity of Minnesota (257 Humphrey Ctr., 301 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455). His most recent book is The Black Underclass: Critical Essays on Race and Unwantedness (Garland, 1994).


Samuel L. Myers, Jr. ( is the Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs,
University of Minnesota. Formerly, he was Professor of Economics and Director, Afro-American Studies Program, University of Maryland, College Park. He received his Ph.D. in economics from MIT.


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