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Three 2020 Democrats say ‘yes’ to race-based reparations — but remain vague on details

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a presidential candidate, speaks at a Feb. 17 organizing event in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

Three leading Democratic presidential candidates have recently signaled their support for some form of “reparations” for black Americans, broadly, if vaguely, backing the idea of compensating the descendants of enslaved people in the United States.

Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as former Obama administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, have all said in recent weeks they support reparations for African Americans. But the extent of their support remains unclear, with the candidates declining to offer specifics on what the program would entail and one of the nation’s foremost advocates on reparations questioning whether they should be considered in favor of the program.

Harris, asked whether she supports reparations by “The Breakfast Club” in an interview earlier this month, cited her support for several programs to help black Americans, including investing in historically black colleges, improving maternal mortality rates for black women and reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Asked again whether she was for “some type” of reparations, Harris said that she was.

“Centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, legal discrimination and segregation, and discrimination that exists today have led to a systemic wealth gap between black and white Americans that demands attention,” Harris said in a statement first given to the New York Times. “We have to be honest that people in this country do not start from the same place or have access to the same opportunities, and I’m serious about taking an approach that would change policies and structures and make real investments in black communities.”

Warren, meanwhile, also answered “yes” when asked by the New York Times whether she supports reparations, adding in a statement also given to The Washington Post that the United States must implement “systemic, structural changes” to help black families. She also pointed to her housing plan, which would offer special help for those affected by “redlining” — the decades-long, systematic practice of discrimination in mortgage practices that has diminished the wealth of black Americans.

“We must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences including undermining the ability of black families to build wealth in America for generations,” Warren said.

Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, first told the Root in an interview that he would favor reparations for black Americans. A spokeswoman confirmed his comments but declined to elaborate.

"I have long thought that this country would be better off if we did find a way to do that,” Castro said. “I don’t find the notion challenging. What I do find challenging is the best way to do that.”

That three presidential candidates are willing to say they support race-based reparations marks a shift in the Democratic Party, which has overall moved left on issues of racial and economic justice, although some supporters of reparations expressed concern about the depth of the candidates’ support for it.

“I’m pleased to hear a willingness to explore the idea of reparations, but I’m not sure what they have in mind constitutes a reparations program,” said William Darity, a Duke professor who has long been an advocate of reparations. “The danger is the possibility that the label ‘reparations’ is applied to a modest or incremental policy that falls far short of what is required, and political leaders then say the nation’s responsibility has been met.”

Darity said there were three key components of reparations programs in the United States: official acknowledgment of wrongdoing; redress for the crime committed; and a form of closure. For instance, Darity has called for having the federal government write checks available only to the descendants of those who had been enslaved in the United States. Other forms of reparations could include transferring stocks, bonds or other assets to descendants of sharecroppers, slaves or both.

The campaigns for Warren, Castro and Harris did not respond to requests for comment on whether they support this form of reparations or to clarify what exactly they mean by supporting reparations. Darity said reparations do not simply mean advancing policies intended to also help black Americans.

“Certainly Harris’s investments in black communities is not a reparations program; in fact, Nixonian black capitalism could be seen as a form of ‘investment in black communities’ — hardly reparations,” Darity said. “And we still have no specifics from Warren.”

Marianne Williamson, a self-help author running a long-shot bid for president, has proposed a reparations program to black Americans of $100 billion. She appears to be the only candidate in the race who has endorsed a specific reparations program, Darity said, though he added the program should cost $1 trillion at a minimum to be effective.

Darrick Hamilton, an economist at Ohio State University who supports reparations, also said the term should be used carefully and that it does not apply to policies intended to simply help all Americans.

“There needs to be a specific act or acts,” Hamilton said. “If I give everybody $100 for an act that took place against black people, and you say, ‘Well, blacks are overrepresented in poverty and will disproportionately benefit’ — that’s not reparations. In fact, it’s a bastardization of both reparations and the particular social policy that’s aimed at addressing inequality.”

Still, the fact that Warren, Castro and Harris were willing to signal support for reparations marks an important milestone for a policy that even the Democratic Party’s left-wing politicians have shied away from. President Barack Obama said reparations was an impractical idea in 2016. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was also dismissive of the program, telling reporters it would be “very divisive” and unlikely to pass Congress. Hillary Clinton, the party’s 2016 nominee, also declined to support reparations.

Former congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who represented the Detroit area but resigned in 2017, had introduced legislation to advance reparations, but it garnered few Democratic supporters.

The presidential campaigns of Sens. Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have not responded to requests for comment.