Descendants of slave owners join Democratic candidates' call for reparations

Saturday, August 3, 2019
The Telegraph

It was one of the biggest applause lines of the night. Marianne Williamson, the novelist and maverick Democratic presidential candidate, lit up the debate stage this week on an issue still relevant in today's America - the legacy of slavery. 

"We need some deep truth-telling," she told the audience in Detroitas she outlined her bold plan for tackling the issue - up to $500 billion in reparations to compensate for generations of pain. 

She traced a line from today's economic gap between black and white communities in America to "a great injustice that has never been dealt with... the fact that there were 250 years of slavery followed by another 100 years of domestic terrorism."

The eruption of applause her words prompted in the debate hall reflects the fact that the issue of reparations is being more seriously considered than at any other time in the upper echelons of political power. 

Ms Williamson was not alone on stage in advocating the idea. Both senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris publicly support some form of reparations. 

The Democratic presidential candidates line up on stage during a televised debate

Williamson is not the only presidential hopeful to support the idea CREDIT: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP

The two senators are joined by other leading Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker in backing calls for a commission to study how a restitution programme would work. 

But is America really about to pay hundreds of billions, or even trillions, of dollars to the descendants of slaves? How would the money be distributed and would the payments cure the racial disparities that still dominate? 

Ms Williamson's cue - like legislators seeking to enact this bill - is an unfulfilled promise enacted by Union General William Sherman in 1865 to give freed slaves 40 acres, later overturned when president Abraham Lincoln died.  That is now forming the basis of legislation that is being considered in the House of Representatives - HR40 - and a committee has already held its first hearing on the bill. 

It has united not only the ancestors of slaves but also some who carry a sense of moral obligation about being descended from prominent slave trading families. Katrina Browne, a descendant of America's largest slave trading family, was among those who testified at a historic first hearing on Capitol Hill in June, in which she expressed "wholehearted support for HR40". 

Ms Browne told The Telegraph the discovery of her New England family's links to the slave trade was "shocking and upsetting", and led her and family members to advocate for the US to take "reparative action" on a national scale. She said that America had a moral obligation to repay "a debt that this country owes" to the millions of descendants of former slaves in the US.

Katrina Browne testifies in Congress

Katrina Browne, a descendent of slave traders, has said that reparations are 'a debt this country owes' CREDIT: C-SPAN

But any reparations legislation faces an uphill political battle. President Donald Trump and other leading Republicans have publicly criticised the idea, while a 2016 poll suggests more than 80 per cent of white Americans are opposed to the idea of giving monetary compensation to descendants of slaves. 

The idea is not even universally popular among prominent Democrats. Former president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were both opposed to reparations. Joe Biden, Mr Obama's vice president and the front-runner in the 2020 race, has also not endorsed the idea.

However Mashariki Jywanza, the co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks For Reparations in America (NCOBRA), said the public debate and a hearing on HR40 represent major milestones after 25 years of campaigning. 

Mrs Jywanza said the momentum behind the reparations debate is building, along with NCOBRA's 1,000-strong membership.  She told The Telegraph she was unsure of HR40's chances of success, but she now believes there will be progress on the issue in her lifetime.

"Ten years ago I didn't think that,"  she added.

Professor William Darity, a reparations advocate and a professor of public policy at Duke University, framed the issue in economic terms. He said that while descendants of enslaved people make up 13 per cent of the US population, they own less than 3 per cent of the nation's wealth.

By Prof Darity's calculations, the present value of the 40 acres of land promised to freed slaves would range between $1.5 and $2 trillion. But he told The Telegraph he favours a reparations programme that eliminates America's racial wealth gap - which would put the amount closer to $10 to $12 trillion. 

Back on the debate stage on Tuesday night, Ms Williamson accepted that it was a lot of money, but argued that it was what America needed to do to come together.

"All that a country is is a collection of people," she said. "People heal when there is some deep truth telling."

 

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