Dr. Tasseli McKay discusses $7.16 trillion reparations proposal for Black communities affected by mass incarceration

McKay sparks a powerful conversation surrounding mass incarceration from her new book, “Stolen Wealth, Hidden Power”

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Erica Lowenkron/ Daily Collegian (2017)

By Caitlin Reardon, Assistant News Editor

On Friday, Sept. 30, the UMass Amherst Department of Anthropology hosted social sciences and policy researcher Dr. Tasseli McKay in Goodell Hall, where she shared her findings on the effects of mass incarceration and a $7.16 trillion reparations proposal for Black Americans.

“The Time Is (Never) Right for Reparations” talk centered conversation around the economic disparities between Black and White communities in America based on McKay’s new book, “Stolen Wealth, Hidden Power: The Case for Reparations for Mass Incarceration.”

McKay is a National Science Foundation postdoctoral sociology fellow at Duke University whose work is primarily based in the systemic mass incarceration of Black individuals. Her first book, titled “Holding On: Family and Fatherhood During Incarceration and Reentry,” is the product of a ten-year study that focuses on the effects incarceration brings on families in the U.S.

Looking at the criminal legal system, McKay’s research combines both analytical and social knowledge applied from both experiences and data to reach a “rigorously, reality-based argument in support of reparations for contemporary mass incarceration as a way of beginning to respond to the historical and ongoing mass [incarceration] of Black Americans that began with the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” McKay said.

McKay concentrated on the “temporal” racist constructions that have occurred and still occur over time in our economic, political and social systems. This discrimination can perpetuate itself through time because of a “persistence in forgetting” about mass incarceration and racial violence, McKay said. “This kind of forgetting is functional.”

While McKay expressed sincere appreciation for activism surrounding racial justice, she does not want progress to stop there. “The economic facts remain grim,” McKay said.” Through historic events like the Civil War, Civil Rights Movement and now through Black Lives Matter she cited how the Black and white wealth gap has “changed very little.”

McKay said that today, white households have a median income that is 13 times higher than the median incomes of Black households. This racial inequity persists throughout generations “so quietly,” she said. More Black men are held under the system of mass incarceration than when in slavery before the Civil War, McKay cited from civil rights activist Michelle Alexander’s data in her book “The New Jim Crow.”

“Unless we make it otherwise where [the] monetary system itself means that the inequities of the past are always lingering well into the present, and the future is already always foreclosed,” McKay said.

Dr. McKay’s concern lies in how reparations are indeed a major steppingstone in dealing with the deeply harmful consequences that racially targeted structures continue to have on Black families and how reparations’ proposals are often swept aside as the time is never right. American society is either too late or too far ahead for reparations to Black Americans. By looking at “reparations as exorcism,” McKay says, we can learn to uproot historical racial violence and acknowledge America’s racism, as well as help to prevent it in the future.

McKay’s plan of action is to first understand counterfactual policies and effect-sizes, estimate the size and depth under which these racially based systems are harming people of color and then using these pieces of data to assign a monetary value. “The math is as simple as it is grim,” McKay said. “We can multiply the consensus economic value of a phenomena by the count obtained in the prior step to produce an estimate of the total economic value of the harm.”

There are many effects that stem from mass incarceration, a significant one being health problems. McKay has gathered that medical expenses from cardiovascular and mental health issues can be attributed to a loved one’s incarceration, particularly affecting Black women. These expenses are calculated to have cost $2.27 trillion.

McKay found in her research that in less than fifty years, the racially targeted system of mass incarceration has drained $7.16 trillion from Black communities.

Amilcar Shabazz, a professor with the university’s Department of Afro-American Studies and graduate program director, shared with the audience his personal Black experience. They first began thanking McKay for her book. “I hope that it is read, I hope that it’s studied in universities, in communities,” Shabazz said.

Shabazz spoke about Queen Mother Moore, a Black civil rights leader who believed that Black Americans must demand reparations within one hundred years because the legal claim would be lost for reparations. “It was on Queen Mother Moore’s mind that if we didn’t get it by 1963, it’s going to be hard to ever get it,” Shabazz said. They also noted how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 March On Washington speech alluded to reparations with Dr. King’s line, “We’re coming to get our check.” Shabazz said that through a push for reparations, the bank of justice denied this money from the Black community, claiming it to be insufficient funds. But Dr. King believed otherwise, as he expressed to the crowd in 1963.

If only there were the economic calculations that reveal the trillions of dollars in reparations that Black Americans should be owed from the past 40 years or so, Shabazz noted.

Shabazz also recounted a personal memory of his older brother, an addict, who faced multiple incarcerations due to addiction. Shabazz said that their mother would pay fee after fee to lawyers and was exploited at times when she could not afford them. She sold her car to get Shabazz’s brother reduced time.

“I’m getting ripped off ‘cause I don’t get the love, I don’t get the energy, I’m not getting all of the financial resources I should be getting ‘cause it’s going to him and this mass incarceration,” Shabazz said about his brother. Because their brother’s addiction was not viewed by society as a health problem that deserves empathy, Shabazz noted how the legal system saw this as an opportunity to jail addicts and make money off their incarcerations.

Now, Shabazz says more empathy is directed to those who struggle with addiction. “I’d like to think the same kind of empathy [that was] seen around the opioid crisis can grow into addressing the things [McKay] raises in her dreams of an America beyond mass incarceration. We desperately need this,” Shabazz said.

Lois Ahrens, the founder of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, attended the talk on Friday. She spoke about her naivety when she first began research on prison costs, stating how she believed that by making known the immense economic, mental and physical effects of prison that people would start to care. She did not account for racism and white supremacy and 22 years later, she does not see much change in the country.

“First those people have to be seen as people in order for that to have the meaning that it needs to have, in order to have the force behind it, in order to actually significantly change anything,” Ahrens said about reparations.

While the conversation surrounding reparations for Black Americans is only the tip of the iceberg, Shabazz said that more mass energy is needed at a sustained level to change policy in the U.S. From there, racist systems of oppression can be uprooted and reformed.

“Those of us that have been the victims of mass incarceration, and we acknowledge our duty to fight, we can win, and we can find that hidden power,” said Shabazz.

Caitlin Reardon can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @caitlinjreardon.