2020 Democrats are trying to redefine the idea of reparations

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attends an event to introduce the Raise The Wage Act in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol January 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The issue of reparations — usually interpreted as making financial amends to African-Americans for centuries of slavery, racism and inequality — has again entered the political conversation after several Democratic presidential candidates expressed support for the idea.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California recently told a radio show host that the idea of reparations should be considered in the face of economic inequality. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has spoken approvingly of the need for reparations, potentially for Native Americans whose land was expropriated by European settlers as well as for African-Americans. And so has former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.

The idea, which the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates tried to reintroduce in 2014 with his manifesto “The Case for Reparations,” has traveled into the mainstream of political discourse once again. But none of the candidates who have expressed openness to the concept has a concrete proposal that would specifically give a new benefit to any group of Americans based on their race.

Asked by a young black woman at a CNN town hall Monday night for his position on reparations, Sen. Bernie Sanders did not say he did or did not support them, but rather argued that inequality must be addressed.

When pushed by Wolf Blitzer specifically on the idea of reparations, the Vermont independent, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, responded by pointing out that the term “reparations” is being used all kinds of ways.

“What does that mean?” Sanders asked of the word. “What do they mean? I’m not sure that anyone is very clear. What I’ve just said is that I think we need to do everything we can to address the massive level of disparity that exists in this country.”

Sanders has had no problem in his political career making bold promises that seem at odds with the political reality. Monday night he was boldly promising “Medicare-for-all,” a $15 minimum wage and free college. Reparations, interestingly, is where he stopped short.

Harris, along with New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker, is among the group of Democrats of color running for President. First on “The Breakfast Club” radio show and in a subsequent interview with The Grio, a news website geared toward African-Americans, Harris repeated that the US has to acknowledge that, generally, black people and white people in this country do not start from the same place. But the solution she has pointed to is not one that would benefit only African-Americans.

“We had over 200 years of slavery,” Harris told The Grio. “We had Jim Crow for almost a century. We had legalized discrimination, segregation and now we have segregation and discrimination that is not legal but still exists and is a barrier to progress. We have disparities around housing. We have disparities around education. We have disparities around income. And we have to recognize that everybody did not start out on an equal footing in this country. And in particular black people have not.”

Harris argued that her proposal to give new tax breaks to low- and middle-income people could help address this problem. The Grio interviewer Natasha Alford pointed out this could by default help black families but “it is not a particular policy for African-Americans.”

Harris ended up saying this:

“Any policy that will benefit black people will benefit all of society. Let’s be clear about that. Let’s really be clear about that. So I’m not going to sit here and say I’m going to do something that’s only going to benefit black people. No. Because whatever benefits that black family will benefit that community and society as a whole and the country.”

Booker has proposed giving, essentially, nest eggs to American children each year so that by the time they are grown they will have tens of thousands of dollars to pay for college or make a down payment on a house.

So-called baby bonds are a policy aimed at addressing the lack of generational wealth that makes it harder for African-American children to succeed.

But, like Harris’ tax breaks, baby bonds would not benefit only African-American children. Anyone whose family makes under the income threshold of $126,000 would benefit. It just so happens that would also help address racial inequality.

Booker has not recently weighed in on the idea of reparations, but his baby bonds have been pushed by William Darity, a Duke researcher who supports the idea of reparations but has argued that baby bonds could be a more realistic way to close the gap of racial inequality in this country.

That the Democratic electorate is increasingly reliant on minority voters has been documented chapter and verse by political watchers. Which tells you a lot about why Democrats in 2020 are paying lip service to the idea of reparations.

But it’s also not like there is a specific plan to push reparations.

Former President Barack Obama was decidedly not a backer of reparations. His long conversation with Coates, published after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, made clear that the first black American president didn’t think reparations specifically were feasible or, at this time in US history, right.

Obama: Probably the best way of saying it is that you can make a theoretical, abstract argument in favor of something like reparations. And maybe I’m just not being sufficiently optimistic or imaginative enough—

Coates: You’re supposed to be optimistic!

Obama: Well, I thought I was, but I’m not so optimistic as to think that you would ever be able to garner a majority of an American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kinds of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people. So to restate it: I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability, to mobilize the American people around a multiyear, 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.

The conversation continued from there and is worth reading in its entirety. In answer, Darity, the Duke professor, argued in his own long Atlantic essay that Obama had not been bold enough in his own policies to close the wealth gap.

There’s not a lot of polling on the popularity of reparations, but the writer Perry Bacon Jr., in a post on 538, tried to rank Americans’ openness to racial justice proposals. He put reparations in his “unpopular” category. Which means there’s no reason to think the political realities Obama referenced have changed.

The question is whether it is an idea that can be reinterpreted, as Democrats seem to be trying to do.

 

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