Can Historic Social Injustices be Addressed Through Reparations?

BRIAN KENNY: On October 20, 2019, HBO premiered an original series based on a DC Comics superhero series from the 1980s called, “The Watchman.” Diehard fans of the original were thrilled to see the action come to life on the screen, and they weren’t disappointed. The show opens amidst bullets flying, buildings exploding, and fires blazing on a main drag in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. There are graphic depictions of men, women, and children being gunned down while running for their lives. It takes just a second to see that they’re all Black. It is terrifyingly realistic, and that might be because it really happened. But the vast majority of viewers wouldn’t know that because the Tulsa race riots aren’t taught in American schools. It’s one of the many atrocities inflicted upon African-Americans that have been actively suppressed in the standard curriculum. Social media on the night of the show’s debut revealed that many viewers were appalled to know that they were first learning about it on a TV show about superheroes.

Today on Cold Call, we welcome professor Mihir Desai to discuss his case entitled, “Tulsa Massacre and the Call for Reparations.” I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Presents network.

Mihir Desai is an expert in tax policy, international finance and corporate finance, and he is the author of, The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in a World of Risk and Return. He is also the co-host of another podcast on the HBR Presents network called After Hours, which he does along with his colleagues, Youngme Moon and Felix Oberholzer-Gee. Mihir, Welcome.

MIHIR DESAI: It’s great to be here, Brian. Thanks for having me.

BRIAN KENNY: I really appreciate you coming on to talk about this case. This is probably … It was probably a hard case to write and it’s a hard case to discuss just because of the topic at hand, but it’s a really important one to talk about. So thank you for writing it, and thank you for being here to talk about it.

MIHIR DESAI: Yeah, no, it’s been a great experience and I look forward to talking more about it with you.

BRIAN KENNY: So I’m going to ask you to start by telling us what would your cold call be to start this case in class? And I know by the way that you, that you just taught it this week, so that cold call should be fresh in your mind.

MIHIR DESAI: I’ve taught it twice now and I’ve used different strategies and I’ll tell you both of them. So the first time I taught it, I started in classic HBS fashion, with a vote about reparations for specifically the Tulsa Massacre. And votes are great pedagogic devices for getting people to take a position. And then I had somebody who wanted reparations and somebody who didn’t want reparations to kind of give their arguments. And that’s a great way to start a case. I found the second time I taught it, I decided not to do that. I decided that unlike other case material, there is just an enormous human tragedy at the center of this, which is the Tulsa Massacre. And so the second time I taught it, I actually wanted to take a few minutes to digest the Tulsa Massacre details. And so I started in a much more simple way, which is I wanted people to react to what they had read. And of course one reaction was, “I can’t believe I didn’t know about this.” Another was to kind of begin the process of just thinking through it. So I took a very conscious decision the second time I taught it to be a little bit more … I wanted the moment to sink in and the scope of the tragedy to sink in. And then we went to talk about reparations. So I think you can do it both ways. I think the virtue of the vote and the kind of, “Tell me what you’re going to do,” as we always like to do with the case method, put people on the spot and have them make a call. But with material that is of this nature, I think it’s useful to not make it quite so oppositional and quite so much of a conflict, because that almost obscures the human tragedy. So the second time I really just let people open up their feelings about that.

BRIAN KENNY: I mentioned in the intro that you are an expert in finance, international finance, and tax policy. I’m curious about why you chose to write this particular case, and you actually did two versions. You did the written version, you did a multimedia version. What was your goal in doing the multimedia version on top of the traditional written case?

MIHIR DESAI: Beginning in the summer of 2020, I wanted to channel my frustration with the events of last summer into something productive. And I think many of us were very frustrated by what happened in the summer of 2020, and particularly with the killing of George Floyd. And the question is, how do you do something productive with all those feelings? And for me, the answer was as a pedagogue can I create pedagogic material that’s interesting, that will help material that is otherwise really hard to teach, be taught widely? And so the first goal was, gosh, there’s this event, the Tulsa Massacre, which hasn’t really received the attention it deserves and merits. And can we create pedagogic material that is really true to the scholarship, true to the moment in our classic way, and really have it come alive for people? And then the second motivation was, intellectually, reparations are about as complicated a question as I can think of. And I thought intellectually, it would be really interesting, and pedagogically it’d be really interesting to tie it from the specifics of Tulsa, to the broader question of reparations for slavery and racial injustice. And then the multimedia case, I confess I’ve never done one of those before. I thought this material was historic, it could be brought to life with pictures and videos, and my instinct was just that there would just be this wonderful opportunity to really bring to life material that is very difficult on the page, but if you combine it with the visual medium, you could really enrich it in a way that it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened, entirely because of this wonderful team we have, led by Ruth Page, that does all these multimedia cases.

BRIAN KENNY: And I would say the other added benefit to multimedia cases is the audio, because it humanizes the voices of the people who are the subjects of the case, just in the way that we do podcasts, frankly, as a way to humanize faculty voices. This is what Cold Call is all about. And I think the multimedia cases have a way of doing that as well.

MIHIR DESAI: You’re absolutely right. And the protagonist in this case is Regina Goodwin, a woman who has been fighting for reparations, a descendant of survivors of the Tulsa Massacre and a representative in Oklahoma. And she, as it turns out, is also just a wonderful voice and a wonderful person and completely magnetic. And you don’t get that on the page, but in the multimedia case, you really do get that.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So for our listeners who are global, who may not have heard about the Tulsa Massacre, can you just walk us through it? What happened in those days between May 31st and June 1st back in 1921. So we are at the Centennial anniversary of this, as dubious as that is.

MIHIR DESAI: Yeah. And indeed the fact that we’re coming upon the Centennial struck me as again, to some degree, a pedagogic opportunity. Which is an opportunity to create material that would allow people to teach this everywhere. So very, very briefly, what happened was almost a classic story, which is a young Black shoe shiner was in an elevator in a department store, and as it opened, he tripped and he touched a young white woman. That sparked calls for his arrest. After he was arrested, that sparked concerns about lynchings, which were then a common way to address these kinds of situations. Those calls for lynching sparked a call from the Black community in Tulsa, which was really remarkable, an area known as Black Wall Street in a part of town known as Greenwood, to come to his defense. There was a set of conflicts and ultimately there was violence. And at the end of it, up to 300 Blacks were killed. It was the destruction of this incredibly vibrant, economically prosperous area of Blacks in Tulsa. And the question coming out of it is, “Well, should there be reparations for that specific event? And then more broadly, how do we come to think about repairing the tragedy of American history? Which is of course, slavery and the racial injustice that has run through it.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And we’re going to dive into those questions too, but before we do, I will admit part of what prompted me to write the intro the way that I did was that I was one of the people that was watching that first episode of The Watchman. And I was blown away by that opening scene. And I said, “Well, this can’t be real,” and I looked it up, and I was astonished to see that it was. Now, I am a college educated person. History was one of my favorite subjects, and I never knew about this. And I don’t understand why that is. And I’m sure that has come up in your conversations as you’ve taught this. Do you have a point of view on that?

MIHIR DESAI: Well you’re not alone. Many people expressed exactly that view, which is, “How did I not know of that?” And of course there are many explanations, and they’re hard to parse out. But it seems clear that we have a narrative of American history which has truth in it of this being a remarkable country and an exceptional country. And I believe in that, and as an immigrant who’s come to the United States, I really think it’s an incredibly special and wonderful country. But I think that narrative has obscured, deliberately sometimes, these other episodes and these other periods that are extremely painful. And so I think it gets swept away. And of course the fact that it involves the loss of life of Blacks can’t be elided entirely as well. I think there’s a sense by many Blacks that this part of American history hasn’t received the attention it deserves. And I’m not just talking about Tulsa, I’m talking about the broad set of injustices associated with Jim Crow. And so it’s part of a big problem in American history. And it’s not an easy problem, because I believe in that heroic narrative. But I also believe of course, in all of these underlying problems and issues as well.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And acknowledging the past is key to the issue of reparation. So we will come back to that. We’ve heard throughout this month, the past month, we’ve been featuring cases with Black protagonists, and we did one on incarceration in the United States, and the Jim Crow laws have been a consistent theme throughout those. So the damage obviously in this country for African-Americans has continued well beyond 1865 and up to this day. And that’s part of the reason why it’s important to write cases like this and to talk about cases like this in educational institutions around the country. Let’s take a look at Oklahoma in the late 1800s, because I thought Oklahoma was an unlikely place to have a gathering of African-Americans when most of them were brought into the US and moved to the Southern part of the country to work on plantations. How did they end up in Oklahoma?

MIHIR DESAI: Yeah. So it turns out Oklahoma’s completely fascinating. So it’s a part of the United States that doesn’t become a state until 1907. And prior to that, in fact, throughout the 1800s, was known as the Indian Territories. And it evolved from the forced resettlement, or the Trail of Tears of five tribes, five Native American tribes, who were forcibly resettled into what came to be known as Oklahoma. So beginning in the late 1800s, 1889 or 1890, it was opened up for settlement. And so whites and Blacks started to move into Oklahoma. And in fact, some Blacks had been enslaved in the Indian Territories. And then many Blacks sought to go to Oklahoma, in some sense, to actually free themselves from the Jim Crow of the south. Of course, whites did as well and there was a huge amount of racial tension that popped up as both these communities migrated into the Indian Territory. And then of course the last piece of the puzzle is Oklahoma then had just an enormous boom because of oil. And so a number of Native American tribes benefited from this, or at least became richer because of it. And then Blacks and whites also migrated there very quickly, especially to Tulsa, to try to capitalize on the oil boom. And Blacks in particular saw it as an opportunity to create communities that were holistic and that recycled their profits and their capital within that community to create vibrancy. And that’s precisely what happened in Greenwood and with Black Wall Street.

BRIAN KENNY: So talk a little bit about Greenwood, how did it come to be known as the Black Wall Street, and what were the conditions that made it possible for entrepreneurship to thrive with that community?

MIHIR DESAI: Yeah, so it’s a great story. So the name Black Wall Street actually came about because Booker T. Washington went there and just saw the wealth that was there. There was no particular financial element to it, but just that Blacks had been so successful in creating economic vibrancy there. There were a couple of particular Black entrepreneurs who bought a bunch of land, and then basically leased it out to other Blacks, creating effectively a Black community in Greenwood. And there was just a remarkable set of data about how well-educated they were, relative to the rest of Oklahoma and the rest of the country, how high quality the housing was, how much entrepreneurship there was. Real businesses, theaters, professionals, doctors, all kinds of things. And in fact, that’s one of the striking things in the multimedia case, because Ruth created this wonderful montage of what Black Wall Street looked like, and it is just a reminder of how vibrant that community was and how much entrepreneurship there was.

BRIAN KENNY: So here’s this thriving community that we didn’t know about until very recently. And we don’t want to paint the picture that things were great in Oklahoma for Blacks, because as you say, they weren’t. I was surprised to see in the exhibits the number of lynchings. Outside of the southern states, Oklahoma I think had the highest number of lynchings of any northern state. Is that accurate?

MIHIR DESAI: Lynchings were common throughout the South, but within the rest of the country, they were there, and in Oklahoma in particular. And that really, I think, set the stage for what ended up being these riots and the massacre, which is lynchings are a very disturbing part of our past, but it’s really important to come to terms with, which is kind of an extra judicial system of capital punishment that was being run against Blacks. And the fear of it, because it was so commonplace, was so understandable. Because it happened all the time. And then of course that fear combined, of course, with the underlying tension is what really sparks the Tulsa Massacre itself.

BRIAN KENNY: Let’s talk about then, after the riot happens, Greenwood is essentially burned to the ground. There’s really not much of anything left there. People have lost their homes and their fortunes and they are now homeless. What is the economic fallout of something like that?

MIHIR DESAI: Well, in some sense it’s incalculable because of the loss of life and because of the dashing of just remarkable amounts of motivation and dreams. But there were very specific claims, property damages. And it’s really quite remarkable because despite the fear that they must’ve felt, the survivors filed the claims. Filed the claims against the city, filed claims against the state for the destruction of wealth. And in today’s dollars, the claims that they filed are on the order of 30 to 40 million dollars of real specific property damage. Unfortunately, those cases never really went anywhere. And in fact, there was no meaningful effort to really think through addressing those crimes until the 1990s. So the damage is enormous from a financial and economic perspective, but the psychological damage, the loss of life, is really, I think, incalculable. But the interesting thing from the perspective of reparations, and the reason I really wanted to use the case both to explore Tulsa, but also reparations is here is a situation where there’s a very specific property claim, and there’s a very specific set of actions by governmental actors. And some of them, at least up until recently, some of them were alive. The survivors were alive. So by looking at reparations in this case, one can then pivot to the broader question of reparations, which is much, much harder. But the reparations part of the case really starts with the specificity of Tulsa, but then moves to this bigger issue where reparations gets even thornier, because time has passed. Because the people who might have done these things are gone. Because the people who these things were done to may be gone, and then reparations becomes even thornier than it is in the Tulsa case.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And we’ve heard reparations shows up in the news quite frequently around the world, and the case dives into some examples of where reparations have been discussed and in some places have been implemented. Can you just talk, I guess pull the lens back a little bit and talk about what the essence of reparations, what are they, what are they intended to do, and where have they been applied and been successful?

MIHIR DESAI: Yeah, it’s a fascinating history, and I’m really proud of this part of the case, which is to look for parallels and to think about this in a global perspective. And in fact, you mentioned I taught this last week. It was so interesting to get the reactions of international students, who brought up so many examples of this, which I didn’t cover in the case. But so for example, there’s the example of “los desaparecidos” or the disappeared people in Chile. There’s the example of caste in India. There’s the example of the so-called comfort women in Japan. So this is an issue that’s really widespread, which is what do you do with these historic injustices? We have these examples. There’s one relatively small example in the United States which parallels Greenwood, which is a community in Florida known as Rosewood, where they in fact did succeed in getting reparations for a somewhat similar event. There’s of course, the remarkable set of events associated with the Japanese Americans and their internment, which is again, historically not been taught very much. But we found our way to providing cash payments to the survivors of those Japanese American internment camps. This was of course at the time of World War II, but by the 1980s we figured out how to do that. We have the example of German reparations for Holocaust survivors. And then of course we have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It’s hard to talk about them as successful, Brian, in the sense that there’s so much difficulty around these issues and it is not as if reparations undo what happened.  But they can potentially serve to first remind us all of what happened, address the remarkable amount of damage that was done, and provide a real acknowledgement of it. But in America, we’ve really struggled with this question. It’s very hard to combine that heroic narrative with a recognition of the horrible things that have been done alongside it. And that I think is what is really tough about this. And by the way, there are very good arguments for reparations and very good arguments against them. This is not a clear-cut question by any stretch, and what the case really tries to do more than anything else is allow us to begin creating the language to address whether it’s a good idea or not.

BRIAN KENNY: Well, fraught politically. Every example you’ve given there are political implications to those. There are certainly people who will say, “I wasn’t alive when that happened. I wasn’t responsible. Can’t blame me for what happened 100 years ago.” So I’m curious. You said there are very good reasons to oppose reparations. What are some of the good reasons? Because the ones I just cited aren’t very good.

MIHIR DESAI: So the first one is that as time passes, the validity of these claims goes away, and we have to, instead of being preoccupied with injustices from 200 years ago, we have to address today’s and think about them today, and we have to be forward-looking. There’s a concern that this will serve to absolve communities of their ongoing responsibilities to racial subgroups that continue to be disenfranchised in one or another way. So there’s an interesting discussion about the debt and the deficit in this kind of setting, which is by focusing so much on these historic injustices, will we obscure actually ongoing things that are happening that really merit our attention? In fact, the mayor of Tulsa has said that cash payments to the descendants of survivors will only divide us. One advocate against reparations, Coleman Hughes, has I think very evocatively put it and said that justice for the dead will come at the expense of justice for the living. And if you’re for reparations, I think you have to take on those arguments. Part of the idea of the case is to make you aware of them and take them on. But of course the arguments for reparations are also very important and compelling, which is, we can’t move on until we repair this part of our past. And no acknowledgement is full enough without a cash payment. And in fact, damages were done to these people. Economic damage was done to these people. And of course the legacy is ongoing and is not limited to Tulsa. It is not limited to slavery. It goes all the way through the 20th century with housing policies and financial access issues, and wealth has been mal-distributed because of those ongoing injustices. And so if you’re against reparations, I think you have to address all those arguments as well, because those are really powerful, real arguments also.

BRIAN KENNY: You mentioned Rosewood, Florida, which is another historical situation that I didn’t know about until I read the case, and reparations were also asked for in that case, but there was a subtle difference to the reparations that were being looked for in Oklahoma. Can you maybe break that down a little bit?

MIHIR DESAI: Sure. So the Rosewood example is a really interesting counterexample to Greenwood. So Rosewood is in Florida, and similar circumstances on the underlying tragedy, but in the late 1990s, the Florida legislature provided reparations for the descendants of, and the survivors of Rosewood. And I think there’s two issues there. One is there’s just sheer political power, which is the ability of Blacks to mobilize and to effectuate political change in legislature, given the demographics of Florida, is just far greater than in Oklahoma. And then the second part of it is, and this is what’s really interesting for the reparations debate more generally, which is they really framed it up in terms of a property issue, and not in terms of a racial justice issue. And I think there are people who look at the two contrasting outcomes and say, “Well, when you frame it up as property, you’re more likely to win. And when you frame it up as racial justice, maybe you’re not.” And of course goes to the broader reparations debate, which is, are we trying to correct a historic injustice associated with, for example, wages not being paid for slavery, or for example, wealth not created because of FHA rules? Or are we trying to equalize Black and white household wealth, and trying to address racial justice today? Those are two very, very different arguments.

BRIAN KENNY: Right. So property framing is less racially charged, but therefore it is a less powerful argument in terms of racial justice. That’s what I’m hearing.

MIHIR DESAI: Yeah. And that’s the kind of conundrum here. Which is this the path that may be more successful isn’t as rewarding in some ways, as well.

BRIAN KENNY: Let’s go back to the protagonist in the case. What are the issues that she’s grappling with as the case unfolds?

MIHIR DESAI: So she’s been fighting for reparations for the last two decades. And she, as I mentioned, is the descendant of one of the leading entrepreneurs of Black Wall Street. And Regina is struggling with, I think, two things. One is we have a moment today where conceivably, because of Black Lives Matter, we have another opening for thinking about these issues. And she, I think is in part kind of asking herself, “Well, is this the moment that it’ll come?” But the striking thing about Regina, and she’s just this very compelling figure, is … And in the multimedia case this really comes out. This is not about the current moment for her. This is about living up to what her great grandmother did when she filed the original claim. Her feeling is she demonstrated such courage in filing that original claim that it’s incumbent upon Regina to pursue that fight and to make sure it comes true. So she and I think many others are, in some sense, captured by the moment, but know that regardless of this moment, they want to keep fighting. And then the question becomes, how do you make the most compelling argument, and how do you decide the path you want to go down? Whether it’s going to be through the courts, whether it’s going to be through political mobilization, how do you figure that out?

BRIAN KENNY: Mihir, this has been just a great and fascinating conversation. I have one last question before we let you go, which is, if there’s one thing you want people to take away from this case, one thing you’d like them to remember, what would it be?

MIHIR DESAI: Well I think first, I don’t want the details of the Tulsa Massacre ever to become a footnote again. And I think we all need to deeply immerse ourselves in these tragedies to understand them. We have to come to terms with the moral complexities of our past, and in order to move forward we have to look into that past, and to ignore it is what we’ve done for all too long. And even in our classrooms we’ve ignored it for all too long. And so this case is about, hopefully, helping us all create the language to discuss these problems and not to ignore them, so we can figure out a better future which involves not ignoring this history and acknowledging it in the right way.

BRIAN KENNY: Mihir, thank you so much for joining us. The case is the Tulsa Massacre, and we really appreciate you coming on to talk about it.

MIHIR DESAI: Thanks much, Brian.

BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call, you should check out our other podcasts from Harvard Business School, including After Hours, Skydeck, and Managing the Future of Work. Find them on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks again for joining us. I’m your host Brian Kenny and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School brought to you by the HBR Presents Network.

Leave a Reply