The Cases For Reparations: How 2020 Presidential Candidates Address The Issue

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Nineteenth century bilboes for a child, front, and an adult, typically found on slave ships, are displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Nineteenth century bilboes for a child, front, and an adult, typically found on slave ships, are displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Democratic presidential hopefuls are talking about reparations for slavery. They’re talking seriously, but with few specifics. What would a reparations policy actually look like?

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Errin Haines Whack, national writer on race and ethnicity for the Associated Press, covering the 2020 presidential election. (@emarvelous)

William Darity, professor of public policy; African and African-American Studies; and economics at Duke University. Director of Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity. Co-author with Kirsten Mullen of the forthcoming book on reparations "From Here to Equality: Black Reparations in the 21st Century." (@SandyDarity)

John McWhorter, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Contributing editor at the Atlantic. (@JohnHMcWhorter)

From The Reading List

Associated Press: "2020 Dems back idea of reparations for descendants of slaves" — "Several Democratic presidential candidates are embracing reparations for the descendants of slaves — but not in the traditional sense.

"Over the past week, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro spoke of the need for the U.S. government to reckon with and make up for centuries of stolen labor and legal oppression. But instead of backing direct compensation, they are talking about more universal policies that would also benefit blacks.

"The shifting definition of reparations comes as White House hopefuls seek to solidify their ties with African-Americans whose support will be crucial to winning the Democratic nomination. But it risks prompting withering criticism from Republicans and a shrug from those seeking meaningful substance that backs up their support."

The New Republic: "Against Reparations" — "The idea of reparations has been kicking around black intellectual and political life since the beginning of the twentieth century, but it has acquired a certain cultural influence in the years since the Black Power era. The first extended treatment of the idea appeared in 1973, in The Case for Black Reparations by Boris I. Bittker, a law professor and a white man. Since then, there have been some books on the subject by blacks, most of them not widely distributed and hence not widely influential, or, in the case of Sam E. Anderson’s documentary comic book The Black Holocaust for Beginners (1995), lacking the gravity necessary to spark a movement. But Robinson’s book has overcome both those obstacles, and so it has become the manifesto for a movement recently revivified by Representative John Conyers and pored over by black readers and reading groups across the country.

"Robinson’s title faithfully conveys the tone of the new reparations movement. Bittker ended his book by saying that “I have sought to open the question, not to close it,” but Robinson, while he initially claims “to pose the question, to invite the debate,” clearly considers the moral urgency of reparations a closed issue. Bittker made a case for reparations, but Robinson’s theme is “the debt,” the definite article dogmatically implying the existence of the bill that is owed us. In the face of such righteous certainty, those who question whether there is merit to the idea of reparations are certainly not welcome to join the discussion. What is being described as an exploration is in fact a call to arms. Robinson presents his position as representative of the race, and he sets things up so that the failure of America to heed his call can be explained only by the eternal hostility of white people toward black people.

"Yet to say that the foundations of Robinson’s argument are questionable is to put the problem lightly. In truth, to embrace Robinson’s assumptions about race in America would have the consequence only of perpetuating the very alienation that his book was written to dispel. The Nation not long ago promoted Robinson as 'a worthy heir to W.E.B. Du Bois,' but his book is just another fevered expression of the misguided ideology that the radical left foisted upon black America in the 1960s, a cluster of beliefs that continues to hobble our progress today."

The Root: "Video: What Are Reparations and Why Are They a Hot Ticket Item in 2020?" — "Reparations for slavery is one of the hottest political topics on the 2020 campaign trail. But, who wants them? Who gets them? And why are they important?

"First things first: Reparations for slavery isn’t all about getting that bag. It’s part of it, for sure, but it’s also about acknowledging and reconciling a wrong. In the United States, that 'wrong' is what some would call this country’s original sin: slavery, and its legacy.

"Darrick Hamilton is the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. He says that reparations consists of three components: acknowledgment; restitution (read: securing the bag); and reconciliation."

Wall Street Journal: "Opinion: The Illogic of Slavery Reparations at This Late Date" — "Sen. Elizabeth Warren told a town-hall audience in Jackson, Miss., Monday that 'it’s time to start the national, full-blown conversation' about slavery reparations for blacks. Come again? Compensating black Americans for past oppression has been a subject of discussion for decades. The senator’s problem is that large majorities of the public have consistently opposed reparations, not that we don’t talk about it.

"James Forman, a black activist, called for $500 million in reparations in 1969 and inspired a 1973 book, 'The Case for Black Reparations,' by Yale law professor Boris Bittker. Civil-rights organizations rejected the idea, which the NAACP’s assistant director called 'an illogical, diversionary and paltry way out for guilt-ridden whites.' Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington and was one of Martin Luther King’s closest advisers, was another vocal skeptic of blacks cashing in on the tribulations of long-gone forebears. 'The idea of reparations is a ridiculous idea,' Rustin said. 'If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.'

"Each year for more than a quarter-century, Rep. John Conyers introduced a reparations bill in Congress. Other books, like Randall Robinson’s 'The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,' have become best sellers. And prominent legal scholars, such as Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School, have filed class-action lawsuits seeking compensation for the descendants of slaves. The civil-rights leadership and black elites today generally support reparations.

"But public opinion hasn’t moved much. In a 1997 ABC poll, 77% of respondents said the government should not pay black descendants of slaves. In a 2002 Gallup survey, it was 81%. A 2016 Marist poll put opposition to reparations at 72%. Even black support for reparations isn’t as high as you might imagine. The Gallup poll from 2002 found that half of blacks opposed reparations, along with 90% of whites. In 2015, a Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN survey found that 52% of blacks, and only 8% of whites, agreed that the government should 'make cash payments to black Americans who are descendants of slaves.' "

Vox: "Elizabeth Warren gives a full-throated endorsement of reparations at CNN town hall" — "Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gave a ringing endorsement of the idea of reparations for the families of formerly enslaved people at a CNN town hall held at Jackson State University on Monday night.

"While Warren stopped short of calling for direct payments, she threw her support behind a bill in the US House to study the issue and acknowledged the persistence of racial injustice in America.

"'This is a stain on America and we’re not going to fix that, we’re not going to change that, until we address it head on, directly,' she said. 'And make no mistake, it’s not just the original founding. It’s just what happened generation after generation.'

"Warren said some of the most prominent examples of continued racial discrimination in the US include housing and employment discrimination against black families."

MSNBC: "2020 Democrats talk about reparations without specifics" — "Democratic candidates are talking about talking about reparations, but few specifics are on the books."

NPR: "Sen. Kamala Harris On Reparations" — "One of the Democratic presidential candidates is floating an idea. It's a way to pay reparations for slavery and racial discrimination. Several candidates have endorsed that notion, although they're rarely giving specifics. Senator Kamala Harris also says the matter needs study. But in a talk with NPR, she did suggest what's on her mind.

"Can you give me an idea of one possible form this could take?

"KAMALA HARRIS: Sure. You can look at the issue of untreated and undiagnosed trauma. African-Americans have higher rates of heart disease and high blood pressure. It is environmental. It is centuries of slavery, which was a form of violence where women were raped, where children were taken from their parents - violence associated with slavery. And that never - there was never any real intervention to break up what had been generations of people experiencing the highest forms of trauma. And trauma, undiagnosed and untreated, leads to physiological outcomes."

Anna Bauman produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on March 21, 2019.



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