The idea of reparations has been gaining some traction over the past few months. Many candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have come out in favor of some form of compensation for the descendants of slaves, though what that looks like varies widely.
Now, though, there has been some pushback to the idea — including from black Americans.
Former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro spoke out in favor of reparations on MSNBC’s “Hardball” in February. “It is interesting to me that under our Constitution and otherwise, that we compensate people if we take their property,” he said. “Shouldn’t we compensate people if they were property sanctioned by the state?”
At the National Action Network convention this month, several candidates expressed their support for a measure creating a commission to study the issue. “When I am elected president, I will sign that bill,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D.-Calif.), the only black woman running for president, told convention host Al Sharpton.
Now Sen. Cory Booker (D.-N.J.), the only black man who has officially announced his candidacy for president, has introduced a bill that would do just that.
The measure is facing serious opposition from Republicans. Sen. Tim Scott (R.-S.C.), the GOP’s only black senator, called it a waste of time. “Essentially a conversation about reparations is just something that’s not even a realistic possibility,” he said. “So it’s something I don’t think we [should] spend any time conversing on.”
Patrice Lee Onwuka, a senior policy analyst with the conservative Independent Women’s Forum and a black woman, criticized the idea as ineffective. “There’s no guarantee that another government check would improve the economic standing of black America overnight or even within a generation,” she wrote in the Washington Examiner. “Reparations would deliver a free check or benefit, but they likely won’t set those in struggling black communities on a path to success. A career, however, delivers both income and opportunity for economic mobility.”
It is also facing some blowback from black Democrats. House Majority Whip Rep. James E. Clyburn (D.-S.C.), who holds a top leadership position in Congress, told the Post and Courier, “I think pure reparations would be impossible to implement."
"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,” he added.
Barack Obama opposed reparations for the descendants of slavery when he ran for president. According to my colleagues, “he warned the NAACP in 2007 that they would be used as ‘an excuse for some to say we’ve paid our debt and to avoid the much harder work’ of enforcing anti-discrimination laws, improving public education, rehabilitating young men coming out of prisons and lifting people out of poverty."
Polling shows a significant minority of black Americans agree with Clyburn. According to a 2016 Marist poll on reparations, two-thirds of black Americans say the wealth of the United States is significantly tied to slave labor. Nearly 3 in 4 black Americans believe slavery and other forms of racial discrimination play at least a minor role in the racial wealth gap. Yet more than a third of black Americans oppose giving monetary compensation to descendants of slaves.
Despite the interest from presidential hopefuls, it is not clear whether most Democratic voters will consider reparations a central issue in 2020. But of course, that could change if the conversation about how to address the racial wealth gap and income inequality picks up steam.