Slavery reparations are new focus for Democratic presidential candidates including Tim Ryan
WASHINGTON, D.C. - More than 150 years after the United States outlawed slavery, Democratic candidates for the White House are endorsing a government study on whether the U.S. government should pay reparations to the descendants of U.S. slaves who have suffered generations of racial inequities.
Rev. Al Sharpton asked each of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates who addressed his National Action Network convention in New York last month whether they back U.S. House of Representatives legislation that would establish a commission to study the institution of slavery and its aftermath and consider making reparations to the descendents of former slaves.
“When I am elected president, I will sign that bill,” California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris declared.
“If the House and Senate pass that bill, of course I would sign it,” Vermont Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders promised Sharpton.
Other candidates who told Sharpton they support the proposal include Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former House of Representatives members Beto O’Rourke of Texas and John Delaney of Maryland.
"Correcting historical wrongs is not a radical thing.
"The only reason it's radical is that it's black people."
- Author and activist DeRay Mckesson says black Americans should get slavery reparations
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In an interview on The Breakfast Club radio show, Ryan said establishing the commission would "help us understand exactly what the numbers are that we’re talking about.” He said it would be hard to monetize “the tragedy,” but the commission would be a “very important part of the conversation.”
“The reality of it is, these problems are structural," said Ryan, who plans to cosponsor the House bill. “Whether you’re talking about the criminal justice system, you’re talking about the education system, the issues are structural. You need more funding to the schools. You need less discriminatory sentencing practices, guidelines, however you want to say it. That’s the heart of the matter.”
Another Democratic presidential hopeful, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, went even further last month by introducing the bill’s U.S. Senate counterpart, arguing that many of the nation’s “bedrock domestic policies” that helped Americans enter the middle class excluded blacks through practices like redlining and GI Bill discrimination.
“This bill is a way of addressing head-on the persistence of racism, white supremacy, and implicit racial bias in our country," said a statement from Booker. "It will bring together the best minds to study the issue and propose solutions that will finally begin to right the economic scales of past harms and make sure we are a country where all dignity and humanity is affirmed.”
History of the proposal
The measure they support has been introduced in every Congress since 1989, usually labeled H.R. 40 to commemorate a never fulfilled post-Civil War suggestion that freed slaves each receive a mule and 40 acres of land taken from plantation owners. It has never been considered on the House floor, although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently said she supports it.
The idea gathered steam after The Atlantic magazine published a 2014 cover story titled “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which set a single-day traffic record for a magazine article on the publication’s website.
“To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying,” the article said. “The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same. The lie ignores the fact that closing the ‘achievement gap’ will do nothing to close the ‘injury gap,’ in which black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.”
Coates and other reparations advocates note that Germany paid tens of billions of dollars in reparations to Israel and Jews who were harmed during the Holocaust. In past years, the United States government paid more than $1 billion in reparations to Japanese Americans who were put in camps during World War II, and several million dollars to Tuskegee experiment survivors whose syphilis was left untreated for decades. Last month, students at Georgetown University voted to fund a nonprofit that would assist descendants of 272 slaves the school sold in 1838.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates pushed the issue of payments to descendants of slaves into a larger, national discussion with his landmark 2014 essay "The Case for Reparations." That conversation continues today in institutes across the country.
Coates joins us to talk about the debate:
How it could work
Reparations advocate William “Sandy" Darity Jr., who heads Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, says the process would have three objectives: to acknowledge injustices by the perpetrators, to make restitution for the effects of those injustices, and to establish closure through the mutual recognition that the debt has been paid. He argues individuals who identify as black or African American and can demonstrate they had an enslaved ancestor in the United States should be eligible for any restitution program.
In a C-SPAN interview, Darity said the case for reparations “Is not predicated exclusively on slavery,” and that the long-term effects of problems like Jim Crow, mass incarceration, police killings of unarmed blacks and the immense racial wealth gap should also be taken into account. Money for any payments could come from the government itself, he says, and it could be done in ways that would “minimize or eliminate” extra taxes on the national population.
“It is not a question of personal responsibility,” says Darity, who has co-authored an upcoming book called “From Here to Equality: Black Reparations in the 21st Century." “What distinguishes this case is the fact that slavery and Jim Crow were embedded explicitly into the legal structure in the U.S.... If there are other types of injustices that have occurred, we frequently have certain types of legal remedies for those. There was no legal remedy for being enslaved. There was no legal remedy for being subjected to segregation or apartheid in the U.S. because those were things written directly into the nation’s laws.”
Darrick Hamilton, executive director of Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, estimates that a reparations program could cost as much as $13 trillion, but said a commission would have to do the math. He says the reparations could be implemented by giving people checks, or having the government purchase stock and transfer it to descendants of slaves, or by establishing government endowed “baby bond” trust accounts. Sen. Cory Booker has proposed a program that would offer all newborns $1,000, and then add up to $2,000 annually for children in low-income households, to provide a nest-egg by age 18 that could be used for college, homeownership or “other human and financial capital investments that changes life trajectories,” as Booker described it.
Hamilton believes there’s a decent chance reparations will happen in his lifetime, but he doesn’t know whether it will come to pass in 2020.
“The fact that politicians are talking about it is a good thing,” says Hamilton. “It’s a result of the social pressure that’s already taking place. At the end of the day, it will take the building momentum of a social movement to drive politicians to enact it.”
Skeptics question the idea
Others are more skeptical. When Coates asked Barack Obama about reparations while he was president in 2016, Obama said: " It’s hard to find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts." He noted such a program might be questioned by people like recent Asian American immigrants whose ancestors had nothing to do with U.S. slavery, and also might make other disadvantaged groups like Latinos ask why they’re not getting extra help.
The highest ranking African American in the House of Representatives, Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, told Charleston’s Post and Courier that reparations could lead to contentious eligibility debates, given the sprawling family trees that have evolved in the generations since slavery was abolished. He also said he knows whites who haven’t faced racial discrimination but could claim family connections to former slaves.
“I think pure reparations would be impossible to implement,” Clyburn told the publication. “But we can deal with the issue (of racial inequality) if we just admit, first of all, that it exists and then come up with some straightforward ways to deal with it.”
The reparations study seems unlikely to win support in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate where the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that would have to consider the bill, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, told HuffPost he’s not interested in pursuing the idea because it is “too remote in time” and “too divisive.” Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is African American, told the publication "a conversation about reparations is just something that’s not even a realistic possibility, so it’s something I don’t think we spend any time conversing on.”
Leaders of the Project 21 black conservative group describe the proposal as “shameless pandering” and say it would be next to impossible to figure out who needs to “do what” and “get what."
On a recent FoxNews program, Project 21 co-chairman Horace Cooper called reparations a “dumb idea” that “doesn’t make sense.”
“There is no correlation between the status of a black American, white American or brown American today and what happened with slavery," said Cooper. "We have had an intermixing and immigration effort that has changed and transformed the makeup of this country.”
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