The most recent U.S. Census figures I can find say that the median income for white households in the United States is $70,642. The median for Black households is $41,361. Typical white families, that is, make 71% more per year than typical Black families. Black unemployment is higher than white; Black wages are lower. Racists might see the discrepancy as confirmation that whites are superior to Blacks in intelligence or in commitment to hard work, that whites and Blacks are being paid what the free market shows them to be worth. That sort of social Darwinism, though, like the flat-Earth hypotheses, hasn’t held up well under analysis.

American history provides a better explanation. There was slavery to begin with, then Jim Crow laws. Even after such obvious injustices were eliminated, subtler racial inequities remained, baked into American systems of housing, employment and education. Generation after generation, prosperous whites passed their financial and social advantages forward to their white heirs. Blacks as a group had comparatively little to pass on to their heirs, who started behind in the economic race and stayed behind. White communities, with some exceptions, prospered. Black communities, with some exceptions, did not. And so, in today’s America, the median net worth of white families is 14 times that of Black families.

One result has been calls for reparations. The argument is that white people, even if they are not personally racist, have been unjustly enriched by a racist system, and so they have a moral obligation to repay their ill-gotten gains. I can’t calculate how much of my personal income comes to me, essentially unearned, because I have benefited from the suffering of others. Forty percent might be a reasonable estimate. I can’t calculate the percentage of my wealth that comes to me the same way, but 93% seems probable. And that probability gives me yet another reason to think that what’s mine is — simply and completely and righteously — not mine. As Thoreau put it, “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.”

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