Candidates edge toward discussing slavery reparations

Presidential elections are decided by many things: media exposure, financial backing, personal chemistry, timing and luck. Policy positions often are just a way of signaling where a candidate stands on the political spectrum. But 2020 is shaping up to be different, the most ideas-driven election in recent American history. On the Democratic side, a robust debate about inequality has given rise to ambitious proposals to redress the imbalance in Americans’ economic situation. Candidates are churning out positions on banking regulation, antitrust law and the future effects of artificial intelligence. The Green New Deal is spurring debate on the crucial issue of climate change, which could also play a role in a possible Republican challenge to Donald Trump.

Yahoo News will be examining these and other policy questions in “The Ideas Election” — a series of articles on how candidates are defining and addressing the most important issues facing the United States as it prepares to enter a new decade.

In the past few decades, the racial wealth gap doubled. African-Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. They die at a higher rate than white Americans. And their homeownership has reached record lows.

These disparities can be traced back to centuries of slavery and subsequent generations of oppression under Jim Crow. And reparations, repairing the harm done by slavery, have been sporadically pitched for years as a way to acknowledge, apologize and compensate descendants of slaves for past and continuing harms.

“Compensation can be anything that helps people of African descent in this country build wealth,” said Kamm Howard, a co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA). “It can be a check. It can be some type of tax relief. It can be business grants. It can be education grants. It can be anything to help us build wealth. But most people look at compensation as a personal check and we're not in disagreement with that.”

Reparations advocates like Howard argue there’s enough evidence to prove the lasting effect of generational trauma on people like descendants of Jews who were victims of the Nazis. Or they cite the 2016 United Nations report which found “the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge.”

However, reparations has been largely considered impractical. Not all people of color in the United States are descended from slaves, and not all are impoverished. It’s also expensive and would cost the U.S. government $6 trillion to as much as $14 trillion. University of Connecticut professor Thomas Craemer arrived at that range by calculating the value of slave labor at prevailing wages from 1776 to 1865, compounded at 3 percent annually.

Presidential candidates have offered up race-blind economic policies as feasible approaches to reparations. But “far-reaching programs that are nonracial programs” aren’t reparations, said Howard.

Toward the end of the Civil War, the idea of compensation for black slaves emerged in 1865, when Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued an order granting freed slaves 40 acres of land along the southern coast. (The phrase “40 acres and a mule” would later come from this order.) But that promise was broken when, after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order, returning the land to its original owners.

The idea of reparations resurfaced during the civil rights movement, in a 1969 “Black Manifesto,” which in part demanded $500 million in reparations from white churches and synagogues “for Black enslavement and continuing discrimination and oppression.”

In 1972, around the time of a presidential election, civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson demanded a $900 million “freedom budget.” And when Jackson first ran for president in 1988, he made monetary reparations a part of his campaign platform.

Still, the idea has remained mostly on the margins of political discourse in America.

But by 1989, when Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., first introduced a bill called the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, the idea of seeking financial redress from the government wasn’t considered so outlandish.

Japanese-Americans had won reparations for forced internment by the U.S. government during World War II. That program was based on a report by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Backers of slave reparations say the same process should apply to their cause.

Conyers’s bill, H.R. 40, in homage to “40 acres and a mule,” requested a commission to acknowledge and study the impact of slavery and of the economic, social and political discrimination against descendants of enslaved Africans in America. Once the effects of slavery were legitimately established, the commission would then make recommendations for repairing the harm done to living African-Americans.

In order to claim reparations, harm or injury has to be proven. Historians have argued that reparations were at least owed to former slaves for property they should have received. But they also note that slavery alone may not account for the entire disparity in wealth between whites and African Americans, which could also be the result of policies put in place after the end of Reconstruction.

Over the next 28 years, Conyers repeatedly introduced the reparations commission bill in the House, where it received little bipartisan support.

In public arena, writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (who had previously opposed reparations) resuscitated the idea. In 2014, he published his widely debated essay “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic magazine.

Coates, reflecting in a recent interview with New York magazine, said, “When I wrote ‘The Case for Reparations,’ my notion wasn’t that you could actually get reparations passed, even in my lifetime. My notion was that you could get people to stop laughing. ... Once you got them to stop laughing, you could get them to start fighting.”

But even America’s first black president, Barack Obama, dismissed reparations as politically impractical, and focused instead on race-blind policies in a “lift all boats” approach to economic inequality.

Before resigning in 2017, Conyers reintroduced the bill with a new title, The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, which again called for appropriations for a commission study, but also included a directive to create a plan for how the country would remedy the long-lasting harm of slavery through reparations.

After Conyers’s resignation, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, in 2018 stepped in as the bill’s new sponsor and one year later reintroduced it to Congress. She also advocated for a commission that, according to a press statement, would “make recommendations concerning any form of apology and compensation to begin the long delayed process of atonement for slavery.”

It was around this time presidential candidates began launching their White House bids and would be asked at town halls and in media appearances their stance on reparations. Four have either pitched policies that take an indirect approach to reparations or proposed full-blown compensation.

When initially asked about reparations, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said she was “serious about taking an approach that would change policies and structures and make real investments in black communities,” but then in a follow-up interview said she wasn’t “going to do something that’s only going to benefit black people.”

Harris’s LIFT the Middle-Class Act isn’t race-specific, but the presidential hopeful has said it would “uplift 60 percent of Black families who are in poverty,” along with all low- to middle-class Americans.

The aggressive antipoverty bill would give families with an income of $100,000 or less up to $500 in monthly cash payments, in addition to public benefits and tax credits they already receive.

Only working families, those struggling with stagnant income and rising costs of living, would benefit from this race-blind policy that would redistribute wealth. But although Harris claims her proposal would lift 9 million people out of poverty, it wouldn’t specifically benefit African-Americans, whose unemployment rate is double that of white Americans, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., like Harris, hasn’t outright endorsed reparations but offered an ambitious class-based policy to address the racial wealth gap.

His American Opportunity Accounts Act, also known as his “baby bonds,” would set up newborns from low-income families, regardless of race, with a low-risk savings account. The poorest families in this wealth-building program get up to a total of $50,000 in their child’s trust account managed by Treasury, which would receive annual deposits in proportion to the family’s income. At 18, the child can withdraw the money and use it for wealth-building uses like paying for college or buying property.

Researchers have applauded Booker’s baby bonds plan as a race-neutral way to achieve reparations and close the racial wealth gap, considering that among 18- to 25-year-olds, the average white American has a net worth of $46,000, whereas the average black American has $2,900.

But if Booker becomes president and his bill passes his first year, the first babies to receive a savings account won’t be born until around 2022. The first beneficiaries wouldn’t be able to withdraw funds until they turn 18 in 2040

One of the few candidates who’s explicitly endorsed slavery reparations, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, said it’s one way for America to “resolve its original sin of slavery.”

“It is interesting to me that, under our Constitution and otherwise, that we compensate people if we take their property,” Castro said in an interview. “Shouldn’t we compensate people if they were property, sanctioned by the state?”

Castro’s pro-reparations proposal aligns with H.R. 40, in establishing a commission to determine the best way to repay descendants of slaves.

Marianne Williamson is the only candidate to take a bold stance on monetary compensation to descendants of slaves. The best-selling author and self-help guru has listed reparations as one of her key campaign issues and proposed “a $200 billion – $500 billion plan of reparations for slavery, the money to be disbursed over a period of twenty years.”

Although she’s the only candidate to specify an amount for reparations, Williamson hasn’t offered a plan for distributing these funds, except through “an esteemed council of African-American leaders council.”

Yet she’s criticized policies that don’t directly offer monetary compensation, like those offered by her presidential competitors, telling Fortune, “‘Race-conscious policies’ are not a substitute for reparations, because they treat a symptom without acknowledging the cause.”

Reparations have become a litmus test for Democratic candidates looking to secure diverse, progressive voters. Black voters, especially black women, will be a key demographic for the Democratic Party in 2020, and the issue of reparations has been a way to gauge candidates’ loyalty to this traditionally loyal Democratic base.

But the support for reparations among Americans is complicated. While 58 percent of black Americans support reparations, 81 percent of white Americans oppose them, according to a 2016 Marist survey. And the 2018 Data for Progress survey showed the idea remained unpopular, supported by only 26 percent of Americans.

“The first question to be made [in the case for reparations] is a practical one, which is how can we imagine putting together a political alliance that can prevail on an issue like that,” Adolph Reed, a University of Pennsylvania professor and a left-wing critic of reparations, told Yahoo News.

Appealing to the majority of the Democratic base is the only way to implement big ideas like reparations, said Reed, who worked on Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“The more broadly based coalition you can build, the better you are [at winning],” he said. And winners, added Reed, can create “political and economic reform that promises to improve the material conditions of the vast majority of black Americans and increase the economic security of other Americans as well.”

Reed argued that Democrats, prompted by the question of reparations, will have to choose between two visions for the party, one that is identity-based and the other that seeks economic equality for all, whichever is “more capable of resonating with the American population of all races, ethnic groups and so forth and so on.”

And reparations might not be the best idea for a candidate to rally behind in a crowded field. Still, the opportunity for a national conversation is better than before, says Duke University professor and reparations advocate William "Sandy" Darity, who says policies like reparations “represent a break with kind of the moderatism that's been characteristic of the Democratic Party.”

This break could be disastrous for Democratic candidates who are trying to strike a balance between appealing to minorities and millennials while also ensuring they don’t alienate white voters.

In “a climate where people are considering things that are bolder, more dramatic, more transformative,” Darity, who’s written extensively on reparations and was one of the economists who created Booker’s “baby bonds” model, credits the last presidential election with the willingness of 2020 candidates’ to discuss bold ideas like reparations.

“The changed environment might be a consequence of the shock effect of the Trump election,” he said. “It's created an opportunity for the conversation to turn to reparations in a much more serious way than it has in the past.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Reuter, AP, Reuters


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