By Thomasi McDonald

July 13, 2022

Duke University economist William “Sandy” Darity has been the nation’s leading proponent of reparations for African Americans.

In 2020, Darity with his wife, Kirsten Mullen, co-authored From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century. The exhaustively researched volume moved Darity to the front of the national reparations debate, and makes a compelling argument in favor of federal compensation for the descendants of enslaved people. In 2005, Darity, who is Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, pioneered the subfield of stratification economics—the study of how disparity and inequality is used by dominant groups to maintain economic and social power.

In a paper he authored, Position and Possessions: Stratification Economics and Intergroup Inequality, that was published last week by the Journal of Economic Literature, Darity asserts that dominant economic groups across the global spectrum have a “collective self-interest [that] centers on advancing or maintaining the status of one’s social group in comparison with another or others that are situationally relevant.”

Darity notes at the beginning of his 27-page paper that he wants “to perform bypass surgery on the argument that groups in a subordinate position on the socio-economic ladder are so ranked because of their own deficiencies or self-defeating behavior,” indeed that the economic status of Black folks, Indigenous populations, people of color and women “are due to [their own] defective cultural habits and practices.”

Darity says he wanted to circumvent that premise by explaining that cultural differences are not the fundamental cause of the separation.

Indeed, when it comes to the uneven intergenerational transmission of resources and advantage across social groups, “exploitation is the fundamental cause,” he says in the scholarly work published on July 1.

Darity takes aim at those who insist that inequality will decline, “markedly,” if  members of a subordinate group—like Black people who are shot and killed by police during a traffic stop—simply “do the right thing.”

Members of a subordinate group, the economic scholar says, “can do all ‘the right things’—attain higher education and be highly motivated, hardworking, and frugal—and still not receive the level of rewards received by similarly accomplished members of a dominant group.”

Darity explains the theoretical framework of stratification economics “is applicable to all societies and at multiple levels of inequality.”

Darity says that the theoretical frame can be coupled with “last-place aversion,” which he explains is “the strong preference to avoid being at the bottom rung of a social ladder,” and an intense desire “to at least maintain and, if possible, improve one’s ranking.”