The Unmaking of “Black Bill Gates”: How the U.S. Patent System Failed African-American Inventors

The United States government owes African-Americans reparations for the harm of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Existing reparations scholarship focuses on remedying losses related to real property, healthcare disparities, mass incarceration, and educational opportunities. But reparations for the Transatlantic Slave Trade must also include the value of patents historically denied to African-Americans. Revolutionary contributions from enslaved Black inventors and their descendants catapulted the United States to the top of the global economy. However, the United States denied enslaved Black people the right to property, including intellectual property to maximize the profitability of their inventions. After emancipation, structural racism and racial violence continued to ostracize African-Americans from the patent system until their inventive activity plummeted in the late 1800s. The Transatlantic Slave Trade’s legacy endures in the patent context: its violence has contributed to the underrepresentation of African-American patent applicants and awardees, stark disparities in income and economic mobility, and forgone inventive contributions. This harm warrants a comprehensive reparations package that confronts gaps in white and African-American inventive activity.

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