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BET Founder on why he's calling for reparations

Black Entertainment Television Founder Robert Johnson joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers to break down his call for $14 trillion of reparations for slavery.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to continue the conversation that we were having just a little bit ago about the protests that we are seeing around the country. We're joined now by BET Founder Bob Johnson. Bob, thank you so much for joining us.

Just the other day, you were calling for reparations in the amount of $14 trillion. I'm wondering how you reached that number and that figure.

ROBERT JOHNSON: Well, I think the part of reparations is to atone, one, for damages done to a party through no cause of their own. And to me, atonement means bringing equality of wealth, income, and opportunity to those people who have suffered the damages.

So if you take the net value, if you will, the net worth combined of a median African American family, when you take in the key indices of wealth-- homeownership, income, access to quality education, savings, and investments-- and a typical African American median family in terms of what I call accumulated wealth would be approximately $350,000 to bring a white American-- to bring African Americans up to that number based on the disparity of wealth, disparity of income, disparity in homeownership, income, access to education, savings, and investment. It would probably take about $350,000 per 40 million African American descendants of slaves. When you multiply that $350,000 times 40 million, that gets you around $14.7 trillion.

KRISTIN MYERS: So what does reparations look like in your mind? Is it cutting a check of $350,000 to all of those 40-some-million Americans descended from slaves? Is it, you know, baby bonds, targeted programs? What exactly does reparations look like in your mind?

ROBERT JOHNSON: There are two things reparations look like in my mind. One is the historical fact. Reparations has always been a form of atonement for past sins or past damages or hurt. And part of atonement is to say to those people who are harmed, particularly if you want to live in a society in harmony with those people, is to say I want your forgiveness for what I did to you. So there's a bit of a moral equation to reparations as the Jews got after the Nazi Holocaust. So that's a moral equation, which I believe build harmony and unity in a society.

The second part of reparations, in my mind, is to get economic wealth and income equal to those people who had the advantages of the wealth transfer that happened in their behalf from those people who suffered their wealth transfer. Slave labor free is a wealth transfer to white folks who had the right to slaves. Lack of education and Jim Crow and segregation is a denial of education which leads to higher income, for the most part.

Homeownership is a clear transfer of wealth because people own homes, get the mortgage deduction against their interest. People who don't own homes-- i.e. in this case African Americans who have less homeownership-- they don't get it, but they still pay the taxes. So that's a huge wealth transfer. And, of course, with more income, you've got more investment in stocks and bonds. With more income, you get more savings in retirement, 401(k) and the like.

So reparations has two components-- atone, make us whole because you want us to live together in harmony with you. And the second part is money that pay for damages done to us by the wealth transfer.

And my definition of reparations is cash payment, cash because we are a capitalist society. And in a capitalist society, the principle driver of what makes you superior in opportunity, superior in wealth, and probably superior in attitude is access to wealth and sustainability of wealth to care for yourself and your family.

So I'm talking about cash. We have done what I call the programs, the need-based programs. We've done food stamps. We've done welfare. We've done section 8 low-income housing. We've done all the things about education. We're going to build better schools and the like and so on. We're going to build better roads in the community.

My thing is to white America, trust Africans Americans to take the money directly into their own hands and fulfill their destiny, as all of us do, in a capitalistic society. So it's a cash payment.

The way I formulated it, Kristin, is over 30 years African Americans will receive a cash transfer-- basically what African Americans did under slavery-- from each taxpaying American. And if you break that down--

KRISTIN MYERS: Wait a minute, Bob, I just want to jump in here. So what you're saying is you want a tax levied on all Americans-- I'm assuming minus the recipients of reparations. A tax levied--

ROBERT JOHNSON: No, no, no, The recipients of reparations would pay a tax. A tax is a tax, and we're not trying to say because you got damaged, you don't have to pay a tax. It's like if somebody stole your car and you got damages for it, you wouldn't say hey, I got damaged. I don't have to pay taxes until my car is paid for. No. We'd pay a tax.

But what I want to point out-- this money, if you break it down, would amount to about $8 per day per tax-paying person over 30 years.

KRISTIN MYERS: So you would all see that even happening-- as we were talking about earlier with the congressman, you know, Congressman Conyers tried for almost the entirety of his time in Congress, starting in 1989 when he first introduced the bill HR 40-- which was just to study reparations, not even to grant reparations. Every year since 1989, that bill has died. And after the congressman died, it was then picked up by other representatives in the House, and it has continued to die in Congress.

So, I mean, what else do we need to do to create some sort of economic equity beyond reparations? Because as I'm seeing it right now, it is so unlikely that a bill like that would pass.

ROBERT JOHNSON: Well, here's the thing. First of all, you've got to ask yourself the question. What is America's just inability-- moral inability to come to grips with slavery and Jim Crowism over the past 200-plus years? Why can't Americans say to African Americans we simply cannot apologize to you for slavery, nor can we reimburse you for slavery? There is a-- there is a DNA, a morality missing in white America if they can't do that. And African Americans take that as a rejection of their humanity and their rights.

So we live in a country where we preach the great platitudes. You know, all men are created equal. This is a country-- a capitalist country where people have opportunity to achieve their best. Judge people by the content of their character, and I can go on and on. But when you ask African-- white Americans to pay people for damages, it is almost-- they're almost-- it's inconceivable-- they can't conceive of why they should do that.

That gives the lie to the belief that there's such a thing as American exceptionalism. And so to me, as long as we have that divide where white Americans say we want to be-- we want to bring racial unity. We want to bring us together as a family. But how do you bring a family together when one group has been denied their rightful access to income, wealth, and equal opportunity for over 200-plus years and the other group is 10 times in wealth ahead of you, which you'll never, never catch up? I don't care how many government programs you put ahead.

The median net worth of a white family is $170,000. The median net worth of an African American family is $17,000. So you tell me what program in any short order is going to make that black family catch up in wealth to a white family? Nothing. There's nothing the government can do in a short-- in a time-- even a 30-year time period I'm talking about that would bring equality.

And what is it about white America where the country is based on a capitalist society, so damages ought to be paid financially to say we owe it, we should pay it, and we make a statement to ask forgiveness. And, Kristin, I'm sure you know this. African Americans are the most forgiving people in the world. You know, they will embrace white America in a way that they never embraced them before if white Americans would own up to the need for atonement and then say to you, we're going to make you whole so you are equal to us in every aspect.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, Bob, we're going to have to bring you back in the future to continue this conversation. It's been great, but we're going to have to leave that there. Bob Johnson, founder of BET, thanks so much for your time today.

ROBERT JOHNSON: Thanks, Kristin.