In a little-noticed radio interview in late January, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) became one of the most prominent members of Congress in recent history to suggest legislation to potentially provide reparations for slavery.
Congress should "look at moving forward" on legislation that would study the impact of slavery and whether reparations should be distributed, said Van Hollen, who is running for the open Senate seat in Maryland, in a Jan. 27 interview with the "Rock Newman Show" at Howard University.
The Senate candidate's comments flew under the radar until Graham Vyse of Inside Sources picked them up and wrote about them Thursday.
To reiterate and be completely clear, Van Hollen is saying he'd be open to considering a bill that considers reparations. His comments will hardly be a watershed moment for the reparations cause, a la Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2014 essay "The Case for Reparations."
But the fact that Van Hollen — a top member of House Democrats' leadership team in recent years — left open the possibility of reparations is notable in a country that has largely brushed it off. It's a cause that has generally been supported by a small number of lawmakers in Washington and not received a full airing.
That's because reparations have never been a rallying cry for national politicians of any color, said James Lance Taylor, a professor at the University of San Francisco who has studied and advocated for reparations. Within the halls of Congress, Taylor said, reparations are viewed as "a black thing" — and more specifically, since the black power movement of the 1960s claimed the cause, a radical black thing.
"It's been marginalized as sort of a nationalist, black radical political idea," Taylor said.
Today, many prominent Democrats have indicated or said outright they don't think reparations are the way to go. Van Hollen's conversation with Newman came shortly after Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told Fusion TV that he didn't support reparations, calling them divisive and — somewhat ironically — giving another reason as the chances of them getting through Congress as "nil." President Obama and Hillary Clinton also haven't supported the idea. Candidate Obama expressed concern that reparations would gloss over all the other work America needs to do to reach racial equality.
In Congress, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has introduced legislation to to set up a seven-person committee to consider the idea of reparations every year since 1989. The bill is flagged H.R. 40, so named for the original reparations promise that former slaves would receive "40 acres and a mule." But the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members provide most of the support for the bill, hasn't put any real weight behind it, and the bill at most gathered about 60 cosponsors. Going back to 2003, six or seven of those lawmakers have been either Hispanic or white, as Van Hollen is; the rest are black. This year, it has no cosponsors so far.
And so Van Hollen appears to have opened the door to reparations further than any other high-ranking politician. His words could carry some weight, too. He has been at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) side for a decade and was once considered a candidate for House speaker himself. He served two terms as head of House Democrats' campaign efforts, and he's now the top Democrat on the Budget Committee. Were he to join the Senate and actually pursue the issue, he would be in even rarer company than in the House.
In his radio interview with Van Hollen, Newman touched on the lack of discussion about reparations: "What does it say about Congress as an institution that it won’t at least examine that issue?
Van Hollen's answer (you can hear him at about the 7:50 mark):
Well, first of all, we can never totally erase the original sin, the evil of slavery, but we should do everything in our power to address the challenges that have come about because of that. I applaud Congressman Conyers for that legislation. I think we need to look at moving forward on that.
But I also believe, as President Obama has said, we need to immediately also be sure we can invest our resources in a way that we can get closer to the promise of equal rights and equal justice and equal opportunity. So it seems to me we can pursue both paths. In terms of reparations, and I think the president has made this point, there's a whole expanse of issues we need to address that [reparations] would not wholly deal with. For example when it comes to criminal justice reform, when it comes to police accountability, those are also issues we need to be pursuing full speed ahead.
We should note that, when you're in a competitive Senate primary, the political implications of what you say is likely never far from your mind.
Van Hollen's main challenger in the April 26 primary is Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who is black. And they're running in a state that is a third black and growing, according to 2014 Census data. The latest polls show the race is neck and neck but with Edwards with a 50-point lead among African American voters.
It's also notable that, even before the reparations comment, Van Hollen had collected endorsements from prominent black officials in Maryland.
Nonetheless, in a country where the political dialogue is heading in a very different direction in both parties — and with Democratic presidential candidates launching the most overt campaign to woo black voters perhaps ever — it's perhaps no surprise that something similar is happening in a key Senate race.