How the Tulsa Massacre Robbed Generations of Future Black Americans

A century ago, a black, 19-year old shoe shiner named Dick Rowland tripped and fell into a white, female elevator operator two years his junior in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was nothing. Everyone was fine. But by the next day, the incident, as ephemeral as it was, was twisted by the white supremacists at the Tulsa Tribune into a front page article with a headline telling readers to “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.”

What happened next was one of the single worst racial atrocities in American history: Over two days on May 31st and June 1st, mobs of white Tulsans murdered as many as 300 of their black neighbors, and destroyed 35 blocks of Greenwood, a black neighborhood so prosperous it had been known as “black Wall Street.” Hundreds more fled. Survivors were warned to keep quiet, unless they wanted it to happen again.

It also wasn’t in isolation. The Tulsa massacre came two years after the Red Summer of 1919, when whites launched as many as 35 terrorism campaigns against blacks. The U.S. government further disenfranchised blacks by excluding them from the New Deal and the G.I. Bill; razing their neighborhoods through “Urban Renewal” programs; and encouraging the decades of gentrification that persist to this day.

Rolling Stone caught up with Dr. William “Sandy” Darity, Jr., a Duke University economist who studies the effect that these massacres and disenfranchising policies have had on black Americans, and makes the case for at least $11.2 trillion in reparations. “People are deeply mistaken when they use the phrase ‘slavery reparations,’” Darity told Rolling Stone. “It is not the only period that’s relevant to the case for reparations for black American descendants of slavery. The white massacres make that point in spades.”

In a wide-ranging discussion on reparation in the U.S., Darity, who recently co-authored the book From Here to Equality: Reparations for black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, talked about the legacy of the massacre on generational wealth in black America, the backlash to critical race theory, and why a Congressional bill to study reparations doesn’t go far enough.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s put the Tulsa massacre into historical context. What was happening at the time in the country, especially around black communities accumulating wealth?
What was relevant to that particular period was the aftermath of World War I, and the types of reactions and responses that many white Americans had to the returning veterans who were black, who were coming back to the United States with a sense that, having given their service and sacrifice to the nation, they should not be returning to a Jim Crow America. But, in fact, they were. Their resistance to those conditions triggered white animus. That was a trigger. It wasn’t the sole cause of these massacres taking place, because obviously, in many instances they seemed to be an effort to eradicate black prosperity.

What were the economic conditions for black people in America at that point? Were black communities getting wealthier?
We don’t have … a data set that would be able to tell us whether or not, for example, in the communities where the massacres occurred, black households in those communities had higher levels of wealth than they did in other parts of the country. But if we could demonstrate that, that would confirm the kind of suspicion that you had.

That the Massacre was triggered not only by racism, but by economic anxiety from whites.
And the two fuse. You can have, simultaneously, an interdependence between racism and economic anxiety, especially if the group that holds the racist attitudes is concerned about maintaining relative position.

Can you explain that a little bit more?
In 2016, a lot of the folks who looked at the outcome of the election engaged in a debate over whether or not the vote that was given in support of Trump was due to, in their phrase, “economic anxiety” or due to racism, as if these were dichotomous reasons.

But suppose the white voters who voted for Trump were concerned about there being a change in the relative distance between them and black Americans. If they believed that black Americans were catching up, or black Americans had actually outstripped them — and there is some evidence to suggest that there was a large number of white Americans who believe that despite what the actual evidence shows — then what you’re actually doing is you’re combining concerns about economic anxiety with racism. They fuse together.

The key is whether or not there is a concern over your group’s comparative position. And if there is a concern over your group’s comparative position, and you believe that that compared position is eroding, then you could respond by voting for Trump or you could respond as might have occurred in the 1920s or in 1919 by engaging in acts of outright terror and violence.

Could you tell me more about what wealth in Tulsa looked like before the Massacre?
We do have some reasonable estimates of what was lost by black Tulsans, in terms of property. At the time, the property loss claims that were filed in the aftermath of the massacre amounted to about $2 million in 1921 dollars. [National Geographic estimated that to be worth] about $610 million today.

That’s a low-end estimate. If somebody didn’t make a claim or didn’t file, if there were a refugee who left the city and had never to return, or if they were individuals who were killed and had no relatives who would file a claim, those numbers don’t appear in the estimate. So we’d have to say that that’s an estimate that is, in some sense, a conservative measure.

Capital tends to attract more capital. So, would you be able to tell me a bit more about the particular effects of the unraveling of black Tulsa would have on further generations?
There was a chilling effect that was associated with the occurrence of this massacre in conjunction with the earlier massacres of 1919 and others that occurred during [this] time. It made it fairly clear to black Americans everywhere in the United States that there was a true danger associated with having any visible prosperity, which in turn could have an adverse effect on people’s efforts to try to fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams.

So I would argue that the Tulsa conflagration was so horrific that it had a potential chilling effect on black business development. There’s work that Lisa Cook at Michigan State has done about black innovations and inventions and patents, and she’s argued that these types of terrorist campaigns had a very destructive effect on black patenting of new inventions. So there was a companion crushing of some of the innovative spirit in the black community.

Do you support H.R. 40 [The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, which passed the House Judiciary Committee in April more than 30 years after being introduced], or do you think that doesn’t go far enough?
It’s not a question of going far enough; it’s a poor piece of legislation. So, I’m in the weird position of being somebody who is a passionate advocate of reparations but does not support H.R. 40 as it is currently written.

And what else would you like to see?
I would actually like to see a different piece of legislation, one that charged with ensuring that the report that they produce contains a proposal that ensures that black Americans who are descendants of persons who were enslaved in the United States are the eligible recipients; that whatever proposal is produced prioritizes elimination of the racial wealth gap; that ensures that whatever proposal is produced directs the federal government to make direct payments to the eligible recipients; and whatever proposal that’s generated specifies the federal government as the primary of financial responsibility for the reparations plan. The existing legislation doesn’t provide any directives whatsoever for the commission. Their proposals are left completely open-ended.

And then there’s some structural problems with the bill including the fact — and this is really, really disturbing — that it treats the Federal Advisory Committee Act as non-applicable to the proceedings of this particular commission, which means that they have no obligation to be transparent or to provide public records of their proceedings.

There are some other problems, including the fact that the bill provides for salaries of up to $172,000 for the members. While we definitely think there should be a paid professional staff to support the committee’s activities, the individual members of the commission should not be receiving salaries. This is disturbing from the standpoint of the ethical status of this particular commission that would have really a sacred mission.

In your book, From Here to Equality, you talk about three steps to reparations: acknowledgement, redress, and closure. Since George Floyd’s murder last year, there’s been a more widespread acknowledgement of black suffering. Where do you see the country now?
There are many Americans who are willing to take that step. But there’s also a ferocious resistance that is evident in the attack on so-called critical race theory that’s reflected in the impulse across the number of states’ legislatures to suppress the teaching of the American history of race and racism in the schools. Locally, my own state university’s Board of Trustees made the decision to deny Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. I see all of this as part of a single fabric. That is a fabric of resistance to having an honest telling of the nation’s history. There is a significant segment of the American population that doesn’t want the story to be told in an accurate way, whether it’s Tulsa or any other dimension of the nation’s history of white supremacy.

So there’s a struggle that is before us that might be a struggle that will endure for a while before it becomes possible to actually have a reparations plan enacted. And I would add that that struggle is really a consequence of the failure of the nation to actually ever de-Confederatize.

patients recovering from effects of race riot of june 1st,, american red cross hospital, tulsa, oklahoma, usa, american national red cross photograph collection, november 1921. (photo by: ghi/universal history archive/universal images group via getty images)

Patients recovering from Effects of Race Riot of June 1st, American Red Cross Hospital, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, November 1921.

GHI/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Can you talk more about that?
The failure in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to preclude or prevent the former Confederates from having any type of significant role in the nation’s electoral process. It wasn’t very long before former Confederates were sitting in the United States Senate, holding elected positions from the states that had been part of the secession. That should not have happened. The obvious parallel is trying to imagine post-World War II Germany erecting a set of memorials and celebratory statues on behalf of the Nazis. That didn’t occur there. There may be other things that we can complain about what Germany did not do adequately, but that’s something that didn’t take place. And it is exactly what took place in the United States and that is what forges the sustained resistance to not only telling the true story of America, but also the resistance to reparative justice.

How do you feel about smaller scale reparations that are happening at city levels or at the levels of universities?
Kirsten Mullen [Darity’s co-author] and I both said that these kinds of piecemeal measures do not constitute reparations. They may be characterized as acts of racial equity, or they may be characterized as acts of atonement, but they’re best not characterized as true reparations. This is because for us, reparations requires elimination of the racial wealth gap in the United States, and that is something that cannot be accomplished through these types of individual acts or collective acts taken by private persons or by the state or local governments.

One of the statistics that we like to report to demonstrate this point is that the combined budgets of all state local governments in the United States constitute about $3.1 trillion. And the amount of res that would be required to eliminate racial wealth differences in the United States are at least $11 trillion. So, state and local governments just cannot do it.

But the other thing is, the federal government is the culpable party insofar as its federal policies and practices, as well as federal inaction, that has created this enormous gulf in wealth between blacks and whites. So the federal government is the capable party and again the party and it should meet the bill.

Would the $11 trillion figure [taken from a Federal Reserve report] bring black households that descended from slaves to parity with the rest of the country?
It would put the black share of wealth that is held by households with members who are descendants of U.S. slavery into consistency with their population share.

Do you believe that descendants of people who live through the terrorism campaigns like Tulsa are entitled to more or different kinds of reparations?
I’m open-minded about the question of whether or not there should be other acts of atonement or racial equity that are directed specifically to them. But in terms of a federal reparations program, it’s an impossible task to say who has been harmed more or who has been harmed less. Our premise is that there should be equal payments made to all eligible recipients.

You also make a point in your book that reparations have been made by the federal government before to Japanese Americans who’d been held in World War II internment camps under Ronald Reagan in 1988. Does that tell you that broad-scale reparations could happen again or are we so far away from the conditions that were happening then that it seems unlikely to happen now?
Well, despite the fact that there is significant resistance of the type that I described, there has been a change in attitudes. If we went back to the year 2000, about 4 percent of white Americans appear to have endorsed reparations. By 2018 that percentage still was low, but it had risen to 16 percent. And today, the evidence indicates that about 30 percent of white Americans endorse reparations for black Americans. And so it appears to be a situation in which the attitudes that are held by the broad American population are moving in the right direction to make reparations a possibility. But we’re not there yet, and I have no idea whether or not the momentum that I’m describing is sustainable.

Let’s talk about the payment part of the reparations. During the last 14 months or so, the federal government has passed trillions of dollars in stimulus checks and financial relief. Is that how you would like to see the financial end of reparations?
Certainly the notion that the federal government has the capacity to finance it is well demonstrated by the Cares Act and the American Rescue Plan, and even earlier than that, the federal government’s response to the Great Recession: all of these are episodes that demonstrate that the federal government can make substantial expenditures overnight without necessarily raising taxes.

Have those bills changed your thinking about how reparation payments should be given out?
No, no. If anything, the stimulus package has gone disproportionately to folks who are better off. And so, the question of distribution is one that does have to be kept in mind. But our position is that all eligible recipients should receive the same payment, then that’s something that would be superior to the way in which the stimulus packages have been administered and and less complicated that

After the Tulsa massacre, you have the New Deal and the GI Bill and urban renewal programs bulldozing black communities. You have the era of gentrification that we’re in now, pushing black people out of their own communities. When we think about reparations to descendants of people who were murdered in places like Tulsa, would their wealth have even survived these programs?
If we go back to the [post-Civil War] period where the 40 acres were supposed to have been provided, we have a situation in which there is the question of whether or not the recipients of the land, had it actually been distributed, could have kept it. And one of the points that we frequently make is that land would have had to have been protected in some way. There would have needed to have been a sustained military presence of the Union Army in the south, and/or the formerly enslaved would have had to have been armed to protect themselves.

There always is the issue of whether or not you could maintain the capacity to preserve the wealth that you’d have acquired. But had the 40 acres been delivered and protected in the context of de-Confederatization, then we would have really changed the lay of the land. And we probably would have had a very different world entering the 20th century from the one that we actually entered the century with.

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