The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Support for reparations has grown. But it’s still going to be a hard sell for Congress.

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes the significance of a new effort in the House of Representatives to create a commission to study slavery reparations. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Congress appears to be closer than it ever has to seriously considering the idea of reparations for the descendants of those enslaved in the United States. But beyond some corners on Capitol Hill, support for the idea remains relatively low.

For many Americans, interest in addressing the roots of racial inequality in this country has not translated into advocating for economic justice for people whose race has played a role in their economic status.

A House committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would create a commission to make recommendations on paying reparations to the descendants of people enslaved in the U.S.

While the fight for reparations began shortly after enslaved people were emancipated, this is the furthest this bill has advanced since the late Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D.-Mich.) first introduced it more than 30 years ago. Support for the idea currently is largely being spearheaded by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and appears to have President Biden’s backing.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who began introducing the legislation in 2017 after Conyers retired, called the bill a necessary first step on a “path to restorative justice.”

But advancing this bill is likely to be a real challenge given the increasingly conflicting views on racial issues among lawmakers on Capitol Hill — and also the people they represent.

Following a summer where protests filled downtowns across the country, many Americans expressed support for rethinking policing and how Confederate soldiers are honored — but were much less likely to get behind an idea of the government compensating the descendants of those that the government allowed to be enslaved.

More than 6 in 10 Americans opposed reparations in a July 2020 Washington Post-ABC News poll — including nearly 4 in 10 Democrats.

One reason the idea is unpopular is because concerns about the fairness of taxpayer dollars going to the descendants of those enslaved are a common talking point among people on the right. And that argument appears to have picked up traction with the general population. It is unfair to make Americans in 2021 pay for the past sins of Americans, reparations opponents argue.

This concern neglects the fact that the U.S. government has paid reparations before to groups that were discriminated against because of their racial and ethnic identity. But nevertheless, this viewpoint was on full display Wednesday.

Unsurprisingly, the vote broke down along party lines, with Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), one of two Black Republicans in the House, voicing his opposition because he believes reparations would somehow make Black people dependent on White people.

“Slavery was and still is an evil,” he said. “Reparation is divisive. It speaks to the fact that we are a hapless, hopeless race that never did anything but wait for White people to show up and help us, and it’s a falsehood.”

This pushback is unsurprising given the historic lack of support for reparations from those on the right side of the aisle. But it won’t just be Republicans who could keep efforts to study reparations from moving forward. Democrats in support of reparations have their work cut out for them convincing some members of their own party that this is worth pursuing — not because they think reparations are unjust, but because they fear that fighting for them could lead to the end of their congressional careers.

One lesson some in the Democratic Party seem to have taken from the 2020 election is that progressive ideas are unpopular in some of the more competitive districts — especially when Republicans control the narrative. And fears about losing control of the House after next year’s midterm elections could keep some more moderate Democrats from backing ideas that are popular with more liberal voting blocs.

To be sure, support for reparations is growing. It is more popular now than it was two decades ago. And as more people become educated about the reason — and arguably the need — behind reparations, the fact that similar payments have been made in the past to different groups, and what it could look like in practice, support for the idea could expand further.

But one of the biggest hurdles will be communicating to those who say they care about social ills how the government intervening to right a wrong that it helped cause could be key to rectifying income inequality, health disparities and the lack of equity in housing and education.