SALT LAKE CITY — Is there a way the United States can make amends for the practice of slavery and the lingering effects of its injustice?
In recent months, presidential candidates, academics and thought leaders have been debating the pros and cons of policies that aim, in one way or another, to compensate African Americans for the centuries of discrimination they have faced.
Many of them use the word “reparations” to describe the policies they are proposing or debating. Typically, reparations has referred to the idea that the descendants of enslaved African Americans should receive cash payments from the government, in the way that survivors of the Holocaust received cash payments from Germany, Japanese Americans received compensation from the U.S. government for World War II internment and victims of apartheid received cash payments from the South African government.
But many of the American presidential candidates using the term “reparations” aren’t talking about cash payments, raising questions about exactly what reparations means, and what a reparations policy would look like if instituted by the government.
The issue is the topic of a congressional hearing Wednesday, which is also Juneteenth, a holiday that marks Texas’ abolition of slavery on June 19, 1865. Members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will hear testimony on HR40, a bill sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson, D-Texas, that would establish a commission “to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent ... racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans.”
Although the idea of reparations has been around since the Civil War, and a bill similar to Jackson’s was first introduced 30 years ago, the debate began gathering momentum in 2014, when journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates published a landmark article in The Atlantic entitled “The Case for Reparations.” (Coates and actor/activist Danny Glover are testifying at Wednesday’s hearing.)
And reparations has become a prominent issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, CNN reported, as Democratic candidates seek to appeal to liberal and black voters for the party’s nomination. Although former President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton didn’t support reparations, some Democrats are increasingly pushing the party to go farther on policies involving race, gender and sexuality.
Reparations is no longer “a fringe issue and occasional punchline,” Errin Whack writes for The Associated Press.
But what exactly is reparations? As Conor Friedersdorf explains in The Atlantic, “even highly informed commentators lack a shared understanding of what the word means.”
What is reparations?
Reparations has traditionally been defined — and understood by the American public — as “some type of direct payment to former slaves and their descendants,” The Associated Press reported.
That interpretation of reparations is highly controversial.
A 2016 Marist poll asked American adults, “As a way to make up for the harm caused by slavery and other forms of racial discrimination, do you think the United States should or should not pay reparations, that is, should or should not pay money to African Americans who are descendants of slaves?”
In response, 68 percent of respondents opposed reparations. Only 15 percent of white Americans were in favor of reparations, while 58 percent of African Americans and 46 percent of Latinos supported the idea.
But there has been a recent shift in how academics and politicians define and talk about reparations, “fueling everything from mild confusion to needless polarization,” Friedersdorf writes.
In Coates’ 2014 article, he argues that our understanding of reparations shouldn’t be tied only to slavery, but also to the systemic, structural discrimination against African Americans that continued for at least a century afterward.
The subheadline of the article frames his case: “250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
What all of these policies have resulted in, Coates writes, is a fundamentally uneven playing field for African Americans — one that was backed by the government for centuries. This is why, Coates writes, “the income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970,” and “white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households.”
Reparations, Coates argues, “is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
Coates argues for a federal commission on reparations as proposed under Jackson’s bill, a version of which was introduced by former Michigan Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat, to every Congress since 1989.
“No one can know what would come out of such a debate,” Coates writes. “Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced.”
What presidential candidates say
Although several Democratic presidential candidates have voiced their support for reparations, they’ve done so under policies that aren’t aimed specifically at African Americans, The Associated Press reported.
For example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has outlined federal programs that would provide homebuying assistance to communities affected by redlining — the discriminatory practice of denying mortgages in poor and nonwhite areas — as well as universal childcare programs that would benefit minority communities, The New York Times reported. Warren has also said that Native Americans “should be part of the conversation” around reparations, Vox reported.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has proposed a “baby bonds” policy, which would provide children in poor families with a federally funded savings account. For children in the lowest income brackets, those accounts could total up to $50,000, the Times reported. Although this strategy poses complications, it could help black families build wealth, Noah Smith writes for Bloomberg.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has also endorsed reparations, in a general sense. “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,” she told NPR.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has vacillated on the issue, according to Axios. In a March interview on “The View,” he said, “I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.” But in April, he voiced his support for HR40, the National Review reported.
Some academics have argued that these policies proposed by candidates do not technically qualify as reparations, because they don’t appear to benefit African Americans specifically.
“Universal programs are not specific to the injustices that have been inflicted on African Americans,” William Darity, a Duke University economist and leading reparations scholar, told The Associated Press. “I want to be sure that whatever is proposed and potentially enacted as a reparations program really is a substantive and dramatic intervention in the patterns of racial wealth inequality in the United States — not something superficial or minor that is labeled as reparations and then politicians say the national responsibility has been met.”
Nevertheless, some of the candidates’ proposals involve structural change, which forms the basis of reparations, some scholars argue. As Vox reported, Darity makes the case that “exclusively offering cash payments without addressing the underlying structures that have restricted black people from building wealth would fail to correct the issue.”
In a recent New Yorker interview, Coates said he felt Warren was serious about reparations, but some other candidates were paying “lip service” to attract black voters.
Coates notes in his Atlantic article that the late President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But, Coates continues, “his advisors and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.”
Arguments against reparations
Many arguments against reparations point out the flaws and complications in giving out cash payments to the descendants of enslaved people. But they often don’t take into account other interpretations of reparations.
Conservative columnist George Will lists several complications with cash payments in a March op-ed in The Washington Post: Who, exactly, would pay reparations? Should white Americans whose ancestors had fought against slavery in the Civil War be exempted from paying? What form would reparations take? And who would determine which African Americans should receive reparations?
David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, argues in a 2014 response to Coates’ article that if reparations were to be instituted for African Americans, other groups could also demand compensation for the injustices they have suffered.
“If African Americans are due payment for slavery and subjugation, what about Native Americans, who lost a whole continent? What about Mexican Americans, who were deprived by the Mexican-American War of the right to migrate into half their former country?” Frum asks.
Frum adds that he supports two interpretations of reparations — first, “remembrance and repentance for the wrongs of the past,” and second, “intensifying the nation’s commitment to equal opportunity for all its people … most especially for the descendants of those once enslaved,” which would entail better schools and jobs, universal health care, an improved immigration system, improved childhood nutrition, and less punitive drug laws. But he is not in favor of “cash flowing from some Americans to others in race-conscious ways meant to redress the racial wrongs of the past.”
In many ways, the argument about reparations comes down to how different people define reparations differently. Frum, for example, appears to support systemic policies aimed at leveling the playing field for African Americans, but he doesn’t support direct cash payments. But both of those things could be considered “reparations.”
For Coates, this is all the more reason to pass HR40.
“If the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution,” he writes, referencing Conyers’, now Jackson’s, bill.
“A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in … HR40,” he continues. “We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.”
That could change Wednesday.