Nation's wealthiest Black man says corporate America should consider slavery reparations

Corporations have to think about "what is the right thing to do?" he said.

August 13, 2020, 9:29 AM

The nation's wealthiest Black man called on corporate America to step up and address inequities in society, saying companies that profited from the historic slave trade should consider paying reparations.

Robert Smith, who made headlines last year when he shocked the graduating class of the historically Black Morehouse College with news that he was paying off their student debts, opened up about the private sector's role in racial justice in an interview with Reuters published Wednesday.

"I think that’s going to be a political decision that’s going to have to be made and decided upon," the CEO of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners told the outlet. "But I think corporations have to also think about, well, what is the right thing to do?"

Smith suggested corporations can use their "capital to repair the communities that they are directly associated with in the industries in which they cover."

"I think that has to be a very, a very thoughtful approach," he added. "But I think action needs to be taken."

Smith is currently the wealthiest Black man in the U.S. with an estimated net worth of $5.2 billion according to Forbes' data.

PHOTO: Robert Smith, Founder, Chairman and CEO, Vista Equity Partners, speaks at the Milken Institute's 21st Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., May 1, 2018.
Robert Smith, Founder, Chairman and CEO, Vista Equity Partners, speaks at the Milken Institute's 21st Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., May 1, 2018.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters, FILE

His comments come as the killing of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic's disproportionate impact on Black communities have thrust longstanding issues of racial inequity in the U.S. into the spotlight.

"It was the silence of the pandemic, i.e. sheltering at home that gave us all a chance to witness certain acts against the African American community," Smith told Reuters. "The killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in particular, those three in that period of time, that raised the consciousness and the humanity of Americans and people throughout the world are saying this is just wrong, this is unjust, and enough is enough."

The dark legacy of slavery and decades of discriminatory policies in the U.S. are still apparent in the nation's wide racial wealth gap.

A Brookings Institute analysis found that in 2016, the typical white family had a net worth nearly 10 times that of a Black family ($171,000 compared to $17,150). In 2019, the average wage gap between a Black and White worker in the U.S. was 26.5%, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Smith also noted that 70% of African American communities do not have a branch bank, meaning it can be much harder to obtain credit.

Government debates over reparations for the descendants of slaves in the U.S., however, have largely hit impasses.

Earlier this year, the city council of Asheville, North Carolina, voted unanimously to apologize for slavery and promised new investments in black homeownership and business opportunities -- becoming the first municipal government in the south and only the second in the country to enact financial reparations.

In the private sector, Georgetown University made headlines when it announced late last year that it will create a fund that could generate $400,000 a year to benefit the descendants of slaves once sold by the university.

Smith's office did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment Wednesday.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said George Washington University announced reparations. This story has been updated to say Georgetown University.