• America's first black billionaire called for $14T in reparations
  • Harpers Magazine estimated that U.S. received $97T worth of free labor from slaves
  • Just 15% of white Americans support reparations versus 75% of black Americans

BET Founder Robert Johnson said that “now is the time to go big” as he called for $14 trillion to be paid out by the United States government to black Americans. Johnson made the remarks in an interview with CNBC: “Wealth transfer is what’s needed. Think about this. Since 200-plus-years or so of slavery, labor taken with no compensation, is a wealth transfer. Denial of access to education, which is a primary driver of accumulation of income and wealth, is a wealth transfer.”

While slavery may seem like a relic from America’s distant past, it was only abolished 155 years ago, with nearly another 100 years of legal segregation following it. The first African slaves were brought to America in 1619, meaning that slavery lasted longer on this continent (246 years) than America has officially been a country (nearly 244 years).

Harper’s Magazine once estimated that slaves were forced to do a quarter billion hours of free labor valued at around $97 trillion, so Johnson’s demand for $14 trillion is but a fraction of what the state is estimated to owe black Americans’ slave ancestors. It is impossible to divorce the economic prosperity in America from the free labor that helped create it.

There is a dramatic split between black and white Americans’ opinions on reparations. Just 15% of white Americans favor some sort of compensation to people whose ancestors were violently forced to work for free, versus 75% of black Americans, according to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released last October.

Overall, just 29% of Americans support reparations, despite 54% of white people believing that the history of slavery continues to impact black Americans “a great deal.” Like everything in American politics, there is a dramatic split between young and old, with just 16% of those over 60 supporting reparations while 45% of 18 to 29-year olds do support compensating the descendants of slaves.

Robert L. Johnson
Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, arrives for a meeting with president-elect Donald Trump at Trump International Golf Club, Bedminster Township, New Jersey, Nov. 20, 2016. Getty Images/Drew Angerer

Slavery has survived the 13th Amendment in spirit. It clearly states (emphasis mine) "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Reparations are not a topic solely confined to the past, but they apply to the present as well, as many prisoners today are still forced into de facto slave labor by virtue of this loophole built into the 13th Amendment.

Robert Johnson became America’s first-ever black billionaire in 2001 when he sold BET to Viacom, and he pointed out a familiar precedent in American society while arguing on behalf of reparations, telling CNBC that “Damages is a normal factor in a capitalist society for when you have been deprived for certain rights. If this money goes into pockets like the [coronavirus] stimulus checks ... that money is going to return back to the economy.”