Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has previously made it clear that he has no interest in backing reparations for the descendants of slaves. He repeated his opposition Tuesday in the wake of a report that he is the descendant of slave owners, and while doing so connected his opposition to former president Barack Obama’s.
“I find myself once again in the same position as President Obama. We both opposed reparations and we both are the descendants of slave owners,” McConnell said, when asked if anything had changed in response to his position in light of the new reports.
McConnell’s comments were the continuation of remarks he made last month, suggesting that the election of Obama was part of a sufficient response to America’s enslavement of black people.
“I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for that — first of all, it’d be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate,” he told journalists. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.”
It’s worth noting that Obama is not a descendant of black people enslaved in the United States. His father immigrated to the United States from Kenya to attend graduate school. That may not have any bearing on his significance as the first black American president, but other parts of his ancestry are relevant to McConnell’s argument.
The former president is also the descendant of white Americans who enslaved black people. He has said that his mother, a white woman from Kansas, can trace her lineage back to Jefferson Davis, a president of the Confederacy.
The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz reported that a genealogist traced Obama’s roots in 2007 and discovered two slave owners in his maternal ancestry.
Obama’s most significant comments on the issue are more than a decade old, and it’s not clear whether his position has changed since then.
While campaigning for the 2008 election, Obama shared his views on the issue in a NAACP questionnaire. He said:
I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say ‘we’ve paid our debt’ and to avoid the much harder work of enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing; the much harder work of making sure that our schools are not separate and unequal; the much harder work of providing job training programs and rehabilitating young men coming out of prison every year; and the much harder work of lifting 37 million Americans of all races out of poverty.
These challenges will not go away with reparations. So while I applaud and agree with the underlying sentiment of recognizing the continued legacy of slavery, I would prefer to focus on the issues that will directly address these problems — and building a consensus to do just that.
Obama as a candidate rejected reparations by arguing the political will did not exist to provide them, and that he favored pursuing more practical policy goals. He said in August 2008 on CNN:
I have said in the past — and I’ll repeat again — that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed.
And, you know, I think that strategies that invest in lifting people out of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but that have broad applicability and allow us to build coalitions to actually get these things done, that, I think, is the best strategy.
You know, the fact is, is that dealing with some of the — some of the legacy of discrimination is going to cost billions of dollars. And we’re not going to be able to have that kind of resource allocation unless all Americans feel that they are invested in making this stuff happen.
And so, you know, I’m much more interested in talking about, how do we get every child to learn? How do we get every person health care? How do we make sure that everybody has a job? How do we make sure that every senior citizen can retire with dignity and respect?
And if we have a program, for example, of universal health care, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because they’re disproportionately uninsured. If we’ve got an agenda that says every child in America should get — should be able to go to college, regardless of income, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because it’s oftentimes our children who can’t afford to go to college.
McConnell also argued last month that the policy would be too complicated. “It’d be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate,” he said.
Many of the issues Obama mentioned have been addressed as the conversation about reparations has continued over the past 10 years. Advocates of reparations believe they could begin to solve many of the problems Obama discussed.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of 2014′s “The Case for Reparations,” revisited his premise earlier this year arguing that “virtually every institution with some degree of history in America, be it public, be it private, has a history of extracting wealth and resources out of the African American community."
“This is not just maltreatment,” Coates told the New Yorker. “This is the theft of resources out of that community. That theft of resources continued well into the period of, I would make the argument, around the time of the Fair Housing Act.”
The House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties held a hearing last month on the issue of reparations, as Congress considers a bill that would create a national commission to study the legacy of slavery and make recommendations.
For multiple 2020 Democratic candidates, the next step is a study examining the idea. McConnell shows no signs of warming up to the idea, and his invocation of Obama’s previous comments on the issue is just a talking point. But it seems McConnell will have to address it more frequently going forward as it stays in the national conversation.