2020 Democrats begin to approach topic of reparations for black Americans

Friday, March 22, 2019
CBS News

In a CNN town hall in March, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren became the latest candidate to bring one of the most controversial political topics in America into the spotlight: "I believe it's time to start the national full-blown conversation about reparations in this country."

Warren is one of several 2020 presidential candidates who has advocated for a serious discussion about reparations, which is the idea that descendants of slaves should be compensated in return for the forced labor and bodily harm done to their ancestors. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who are both black, have discussed the need to have conversations around the issue. 

Reparatations used to be a fringe idea -- at least among white politicians -- but it's receiving more attention from mainstream Democrats in the 2020 presidential campaign. Many of the declared Democratic presidential candidates have identified a position on reparations, or at least support having a national conversation about the issue.

As the topic enters the political mainstream, Americans may be forced to reckon with the racial injustices of the past and present, even if these discussions don't result in full reparations.

A history of opposition

In January 1865, as the Civil War was winding down to a close, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, dictating that freed slaves would receive land parcels on the coast between South Carolina and Florida.

The order allocated 400,000 acres of land — 40 acres per family — and directed that these lands be governed by black people themselves, with the "sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves." Sherman later ordered that the army could give the new settlers mules.

President Andrew Johnson reversed the order in 1865, allowing the plantation owners who once owned the land to return. But the promise of "40 acres and a mule" for those formerly enslaved has echoed through history as a mantra for supporters of reparations: the idea that for the injustices that they had endured, some kind of payment was owed.

Supporters of reparations argue that 250 years of slavery, plus a century and a half of racial terrorism, segregation, discriminatory housing policies and other injustices mean that reparations for black people are just as necessary today as they were in 1865. However, the idea has remained politically unpopular, according to recent polling. 

2018 poll by the left-leaning organization Data For Progress found that 26 percent of Americans supported reparations. A 2016 Marist poll also found that 26 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should compensate black Americans as "a way to make up for the harm caused by slavery and other forms of racial discrimination."

However, a February Gallup poll found that only 18 percent of black Americans are satisfied with how blacks are treated in the U.S. today. The 2016 Marist poll also showed that nearly 60 percent of black Americans support reparations.

But the unpopularity of the idea may also stem from the way reparations was defined in the polling questions. For instance, the Marist poll asked whether the U.S. "should or should not pay reparations, that is, should or should not pay money to African-Americans who are descendants of slaves." Direct payment to the descendants of slaves may be the simplest expression of the solution, but it's viewed by many as impractical and may not be the most effective way to try to right this historic wrong.  

In Congress, a bill to create a commission to study reparations and its implementation -- H.R. 40, named for the "40 acres and a mule" promise -- has languished in the House since former Rep. John Conyers first introduced it in 1989. But Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced the bill in January.

Former President Barack Obama, the first black president in American history, is among those who thinks reparations are not "practical." In 2016, he said he suggested the better approach might be to throw more resources into moving children out of poverty.

"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," Obama said in an interview with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic in 2016. (Coates wrote a well-regarded article in 2014, "The Case for Reparations," which stirred interest in reparations among white reporters and politicians.)

The proposals

If the economic proposals espoused by presidential candidates like Warren, Booker and Harris are any indication, they hew more closely to Obama's belief about reparations -- that the better approach might be to address income inequality across the board, and not just African-Americans hurt by the legacy of slavery and racial segregation in America.

William "Sandy" Darity, a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and an expert on racial inequality and reparations, said that the candidates' proposed plans broadly addressing income inequality might also help to diminish the racial inequality gap, but he does not think that they go far enough to make a difference in the lives of black people. 

"I think that the primary objective of a reparations program has to be elimination of the racial wealth gap," Darity said, since policies such as slavery and segregation were responsible for poorer economic outcomes for African-Americans in the first place. Darity is co-writing a book on reparations that he expects to publish in 2020. 

Here are some of the candidates' income inequality proposals: 

Cory Booker

Booker's proposed American Opportunity Accounts Act, commonly known as "baby bonds," would provide every child born in the United States with a $1,000 savings bond. The child would receive up to $2,000 every year, based on family income. The child would be able to access the account at age 18, and only for allowable uses, like education and home ownership.

If a family of four lives below the federal poverty line -- living on $25,100 or less -- a child would receive an additional $2,000 each year. This would give the child around $46,000 by the age 18. The size of the additional deposits decreases as family income increases; a child in a family earning roughly $56,000 would receive $500 a year, while a child in a family with an income of around $125,000 would get no additional deposits.

A study by Naomi Zewde of Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy found that the baby bonds proposal would "reduce generational wealth disadvantages and improve the net asset position of young African American households," and "reduce the black-white wealth disparity from a factor of 15.9 to 1.4 at the median."

This proposal, inspired in part by ideas floated by Darity and Darrick Hamilton of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, would diminish the racial wealth gap. But, Darity is quick to note, it would not eliminate it completely -- meaning that he does not consider it true reparations.

"I've actually endorsed this proposal but I don't view it as reparations," Darity said about the baby bonds. "From the standpoint of dealing with general wealth inequality, the Booker proposal is a pretty good one. But from the standpoint of dealing with racial inequality, it's wholly inadequate."

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