The 2020 Democratic primary debate over reparations, explained
A new 2020 litmus test has arrived for Democrats running for president: Do they support reparations?
It marks a turn in a primary contest in which black voters are expected to play a significant role. That the attention to reparations has become so prominent speaks to a series of changes that have occurred in recent years — namely, the increased academic understanding of and public attention to the ways a history of slavery and discrimination has fueled disparities like the racial wealth gap, which shows that the median white household is 10 times wealthier than the median black one.
These changes, coupled with a wave of grassroots activism around racial inequality and economic injustice, have helped produce a shift in mainstream attention to reparations. That attention intensified after some 2020 Democratic candidates commented on reparations to the New York Times and the Washington Post last month.
So far, a handful of candidates have expressed some level of support for reparations: Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro have called the issue important or acknowledged how history supports calls for restitution.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has been running on a policy that would help close the racial wealth gap, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has declined to support reparations but argues that his focus on policies helping distressed communities in general would particularly aid black communities.
Several high-profile candidates have acknowledged the damages of slavery; the century of legalized oppression, terrorism, and disenfranchisement that followed; and how the vestiges of those systems remain embedded in society in practices such as mass incarceration.
Some candidates have also noted that reparations — the process of apologizing and providing restitution to those harmed by slavery and its legacy — would serve as payment for a debt America has yet to truly acknowledge 150 years after emancipation.
But they’ve stopped short of actually calling for reparations programs. Instead, experts say that some candidates have muddied the waters by framing universal programs that would help black communities as a form of reparations — which they aren’t.
The discussion has touched on a longstanding debate about what the United States owes to the descendants of enslaved men and women — a population that has been systematically denied wealth and opportunity in a country built with the stolen labor of their ancestors.
A young girl attends a slavery reparations protest outside of the New York Life Insurance Company offices on August 9, 2002, in New York City. Mario Tama/Getty Images
Surveys of black voters in recent years have found that this group is dealing with high levels of racial anxiety and are looking for candidates who can speak directly to issues of race and justice, including economic justice. Reparations have not been listed as a priority by black Americans in recent polling, but the current debate could change that. The debate also provides important insight into how candidates talk about race and inequality.
“I think the reparations discussion helps to open up a broader conversation of about the fact that centuries of discriminatory policies have prevented mobility among black communities,” says Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a group that works to engage and mobilize black voters. Still, she says that how the candidates have discussed the issue so far “lacks substance.”
The mere willingness of some Democratic candidates to say they support reparations reflects a shift from recent years. President Barack Obama did not endorse reparations or support creating a reparations program. In 2016, Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the eventual Democratic nominee, also did not support reparations. (Sanders in particular was criticized for focusing his opposition on the fact that reparations were “divisive” and would not pass Congress.)
The issue was, and still is, politically unpopular, particularly among white voters.
It’s clear that the Democratic Party is being pushed to have difficult conversations about race and racism — but where did this conversation about reparations come from? And what does it say about the party as a whole?
How the idea of reparations entered the national conversation
Proponents of reparations say their argument is straightforward: America — through more than 200 years of slavery — built its wealth through the labor and very existence of the black men and women enslaved in chattel bondage.
The century that followed emancipation saw the creation of policies that discriminated against black people and largely excluded them from wealth building, creating an inherited disadvantage for future generations.
Reparations, its supporters argue, provides redress for both the original sin of slavery and America’s subsequent failure to address generations’ worth of accrued disadvantage in black communities.
Though the idea of reparations has been around since the Civil War, the current debate about reparations moved further into the national popular conversation in 2014 when journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations” for the Atlantic, arguing that reparations would drive a “national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
At the time, it was a provocative argument — clearly intended to prompt a conversation about the moral necessity of reparations. Coates’s article is well worth reading in full, but an important part of his argument is about housing policy and wealth, two of the most visible ways the inherited disadvantage of black people has manifested.
Coates openly acknowledges that his case follows a larger academic movement that has existed for decades, one that in recent years has been further advanced by economists like Duke University’s William Darity and the New School’s Darrick Hamilton — both of whom look at the relationship between racial inequality, wealth, and the need for reparations.
More broadly, a growing body of research has outlined the extent of the disparities between black and white Americans in terms of income, health outcomes, quality of schooling, homeownership — and perhaps most significantly for economists, a continued decline in wealth among black Americans.
African Americans protest for equal rights during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Collectively, the disparities, and the argument that they are the result of a history of slavery and racial discrimination, have fueled a new wave of activism around racial inequality and increased calls for reparations from black activists. In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of dozens of activist groups working on racial justice, included reparations in its policy platform.
More recently, online calls for reparations have been driven by a grassroots movement of black activists specifically advocating on the behalf of American descendants of slavery (or ADOS, as the movement is called).
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