'Shouldn't we compensate people if they were property?': 2020 Democrats are divided over whether to give reparations to black Americans

  • Over the last few weeks, Democratic presidential candidates have been asked whether they’d support reparations for black Americans.
  • Few candidates have voiced outright support for the concept, which doesn’t poll well among white and older Americans.
  • But most 2020 hopefuls are running on policy proposals – including cash transfers and tax credits – that they say would disproportionately benefit black Americans.

Democratic presidential candidates have been asked by reporters and voters over the past few weeks if they’d support reparations for black Americans impacted by the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination.

Most responded that the country needs to accept that black Americans face systemic discrimination and a gaping income and wealth gap. But few candidates have said they support any policy that would exclusively provide black Americans with economic reparations.

This tension came into sharp relief on Monday night, 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.”

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have similarly pushed to address the racial wealth gap, but through policies not explicitly crafted to benefit black Americans.

By contrast, Julian Castro, another presidential hopeful, said on Monday night 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.

Sen. Cory Booker, for his part, is running on ambitious “race-conscious solutions” to aid working-class Americans and reduce economic inequality.

Booker has 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.

And the policy would disproportionately benefit black youth, who would be given more money than their white counterparts, given existing wealth disparities between black and white families. While the average white kid would end up with about $US16,000 in their account, the average black kid would get $US29,000, 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 $US100,000.

In a Monday 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.”

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 $US100 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 favour 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.

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 antiblack racism.

Since then, 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 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.”

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