Here’s why reparations have suddenly become a hot button issue ahead of the 2020 presidential race

  • The House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties will hold a hearing this week focused specifically on the topic of reparations for black Americans.
  • The legislation, introduced by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and lingering discrimination against black Americans, as well as propose reparation recommendations.
  • Over the past few months, Democratic presidential candidates have been asked whether they support reparations for those impacted by the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination.
  • 2020 hopefuls are increasingly expressing their support for Lee’s bill, and putting forth policy proposals that they say would benefit black Americans.
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The topic of reparations for slavery has emerged as a major issue since the start of the year as Democratic presidential candidates gear up for 2020.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties will hold the first hearing in more than a decade focused specifically on reparations. The legislation, introduced earlier this year by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and lingering discrimination against black Americans, as well as propose reparation recommendations.

While Lee’s bill isn’t the first focused on reparations (former Democratic rep. John Conyers of Michigan had proposed a similar bill for decades, up until his 2017 resignation) the idea has only recently gained traction in mainstream politics, with 2020 hopefuls now beginning to weigh in on whether they support reparations for black Americans impacted by the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination.

Democratic presidential candidates on reparations

Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders.
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REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

Most candidates initially responded that the country needs to accept that black Americans face systemic discrimination and a gaping income and wealth gap, without explicitly saying they would support any policy providing black Americans with economic reparations.

This tension came into sharp relief in February when Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2020 frontrunner, said he was confused by the definition of reparations.

“We’re going to do everything we can to put resources into distressed communities and improve lives for those people who have been hurt from the legacy of slavery,” Sanders said during a CNN town hall in response to a question from the audience.

When pressed on whether he’d specifically support reparations, Sanders asked, “What does that mean? What do they mean? I don’t think it’s clear.”

Sanders was opposed to reparations in 2016, calling the concept “divisive.” Critics have called his position hypocritical given his calls for a political “revolution.” However, in April, Sanders told Rep. Al Sharpton that, if the House and Senate did pass Lee’s bill, he would sign it.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has also spoken out in support of Lee’s bill, writing in a March tweet that “I believe it’s time to start a national, full-blown conversation about reparations. I support the bill in the House to support a congressional panel of experts so that our nation can do what’s right & begin to heal.”

Other contenders, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Beto O’Rourke, have signaled their support for the bill, while Sen. Cory Booker brought forth a Senate companion to the legislation. His platform has centered on an ambitious “race-conscious solutions” to aid working-class Americans and reduce economic inequality.

For instance, he proposed a “baby-bond” program, which would give every child born in the US a set amount of money each year. That money would be placed in an “opportunity account” that would grow with additional government cash transfers every year, calibrated to the child’s family income and wealth.

The child wouldn’t be able to touch the money until they turn 18. At that point, funds could be used only for “wealth-building” purposes, including paying school tuition and purchasing a home.

The policy would disproportionately benefit black youth, who would be given more money than their white counterparts, respective of existing wealth disparities between black and white families. While the average white child would end up with about $16,000 in their account, the average black kid would get $29,000, according to a recent study by Columbia University researchers.

Similarly, Harris is running on her LIFT the Middle Class Act, which would give tax credits to families making less than $100,000.

In a February interview with The Grio, Harris said her approach wouldn’t exclusively aid black Americans in the way reparations would. But she said her policies would “directly benefit black children, black families, and black homeowners because the disparities are so significant.”

“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m going to do something that only benefits black people – no,” Harris said. “Because whatever benefits that black family will benefit that community and society as a whole and as a country.”

When pressed about reparations during an interview that month with the radio show “The Breakfast Club” she did signal her support, saying “we have got to recognize, back to that earlier point, people aren’t starting out on the same base in terms of their ability to succeed and so we have got to recognize that and give people a lift up.”

She suggested in a March interview with NPR that reparations could take on the form of mental health treatment for black Americans.

“I think that the word, the term reparations, it means different things to different people,” Harris said. “But what I mean by it is that we need to study the effects of generations of discrimination and institutional racism and determine what can be done, in terms of intervention to correct course.”

Julian Castro, another presidential hopeful, has been particularly outspoken on the issue of reparations. In February, he said that the US must “resolve its original sin of slavery” through reparations specifically directed at “descendants of slaves.”

“It is interesting to me that under our Constitution and otherwise, that we compensate people if we take their property. Shouldn’t we compensate people if they were property sanctioned by the state?” Castro told MSNBC, adding that he supports a task force to address the issue.

Marianne Williamson, a self-help guru and author, is the only 2020 presidential candidate so far to make an explicit case for reparations. She’s unveiled a proposal to give $100 billion to black Americans.

A ‘divisive’ policy?

The issue of reparations could be one that sways black voters, who made up a quarter of all Democratic votes cast in the 2016 primaries and caucuses.

In South Carolina, one of the first primary states, black voters make up 60% of the primary electorate. A 2016 Point Taken-Marist poll found that about 60% of black respondents were in favor of reparations.

But many, such as Sanders, have said reparations proposals don’t poll particularly well among older and white Americans. They fear that reparations could encourage white, Latino, and Asian Americans to resent black Americans.

Read more: 2020 Democrats have started to clash over slavery reparations, but a new poll shows most liberals support the idea

The progressive group Data for Progress found last year that while the concept had net positive support among Americans younger than 45 years old, the concept was 39 points under water with Americans older than 45. The Marist poll found that 80% of white respondents were opposed to reparations.

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates prompted a national discussion about reparations with his widely read 2014 essay in The Atlantic, titled “The Case for Reparations,” in which he called on Congress to create a commission to assess the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and anti-black racism.

In an interview earlier this month with the New Yorker, Coates was asked about his reaction to the 2020 candidates’ support for reparations. “What do you make of that? Is it symbolic, or is it lip service, or is it just a way to secure the black vote?” asked editor David Remnick. “Or is it something much more serious than all that?”

“Uh, it’s probably in some measure all four of those things,” Coates responded. “It certainly is symbolic. Supporting a commission is not reparations in and of itself. It’s certainly lip service, from at least some of the candidates. I’m actually less sure about [this], in terms of the black vote – it may ultimately be true that this is something that folks rally around, but that’s never been my sense.”

Coates and actor Danny Glover are set to testify before this week’s House panel.

Since his essay was first published, prominent Democrats have shifted on the issue – at least rhetorically. President Barack Obama opposed reparations when he ran for president. But by the end of his eight years in the White House he said reparations might well be justified, if not politically feasible.

“Theoretically, you can make, obviously, a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps,” Obama said in a 2016 interview with Coates.

He went on, “I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability, to mobilize the American people around a multi-year, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country than I am in being able to mobilize the country around providing a benefit specific to African Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow.”