The 2020 Candidates Are Dodging the Reparations Question

Here’s what they get wrong, and how to get it right.

Janaé Bonsu May 13, 2019

Through reparations, advocates say, white America could finally fulfill the 150-year-old broken promise of '40 acres and a mule.' (Illustration by Mal Achi-Maggie Lily)

Every 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date has had to answer whether they sup­port repa­ra­tions for descen­dants of enslaved peo­ple in the Unit­ed States. Many talk a good game. Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D‑Mass.) endorsed repa­ra­tions back in Feb­ru­ary, say­ing, We must con­front the dark his­to­ry of slav­ery and gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned dis­crim­i­na­tion … under­min­ing the abil­i­ty of Black fam­i­lies to build wealth in Amer­i­ca for generations.”

While Democratic presidential hopefuls seem far more likely to embrace reparations in 2019 than they were in 2016, they often go on to advocate something that is … not quite reparations.

This case has been made time and time again by pro­po­nents from the Nation­al Ex-Slave Mutu­al Relief, Boun­ty and Pen­sion Asso­ci­a­tion to the Nation­al Coali­tion of Blacks for Repa­ra­tions in Amer­i­ca, to the more recent Move­ment for Black Lives (M4BL) and Amer­i­can Descen­dants of Slaves (coa­lesc­ing around the Twit­ter hash­tag #ADOS). Although pro­po­nents don’t all agree on how and to whom repa­ra­tions should be dis­trib­uted, there is no doubt that chat­tel slav­ery and its byprod­ucts — Black Codes, debt peon­age, lynch mobs, land theft, Jim Crow, redlin­ing and mass incar­cer­a­tion — war­rant com­pen­sa­tion for Black Americans.

Most agree that the next step is a repa­ra­tions study bill like H.R. 40, which for­mer Rep. John Cony­ers (D‑Mich.) intro­duced each ses­sion from 1989 to 2017, only to have it die in com­mit­tee. Now, pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls are lin­ing up in support.

This is a very dif­fer­ent sto­ry from 2016, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) came out against repa­ra­tions and Hillary Clin­ton dodged the ques­tion. Also in 2016, Sen. Cory Book­er (D‑N.J.) told BYP100, a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion of young Black activists and orga­niz­ers (of which I am co-direc­tor), that he would nev­er sup­port repa­ra­tions leg­is­la­tion because it would be too divi­sive and unlike­ly to pass. Yet on April 9, Book­er intro­duced a repa­ra­tions study bill in the Sen­ate that mir­rors H.R. 40. Per­haps that shouldn’t be a sur­prise from the only descen­dant of enslaved African-Amer­i­cans in the race (the oth­er Black can­di­dates, Sen. Kamala Har­ris and Wayne Mes­sam, are of Jamaican ances­try), but it’s a big state­ment at a polit­i­cal­ly weighty moment.

So, what prompt­ed this polit­i­cal shift? A recent Busi­ness Insid­er poll found that, while 3 out of 4 white Amer­i­cans oppose repa­ra­tions, the idea has the sup­port of 54% of self-described lib­er­als, and 64% of Black Amer­i­cans — impor­tant Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­stituen­cies. Thanks to the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, M4BL, #ADOS and oth­ers, the nation­al con­ver­sa­tion has changed, and the can­di­dates are reflect­ing that change.

While Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls seem far more like­ly to embrace repa­ra­tions in 2019 than they were in 2016, they often go on to advo­cate some­thing that is … not quite repa­ra­tions. As econ­o­mist Dar­rick Hamil­ton says, a repa­ra­tions pol­i­cy must include com­pen­sa­tion and an acknowl­edg­ment of spe­cif­ic wrongs. Yet Book­er has posit­ed his pro­posed baby bonds plan (which Hamil­ton helped work on) as a form of repa­ra­tions. Every U.S. new­born would get a $1,000 sav­ings account, with annu­al deposits of up to $2,000, depend­ing on fam­i­ly income, until they turn 18. The fact that chil­dren in pover­ty are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black doesn’t make a pro­pos­al to give more mon­ey to poor chil­dren repa­ra­tions. It makes it good class-con­scious pol­i­cy that fails to explic­it­ly acknowl­edge and ful­ly atone for the impacts of slavery.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Har­ris said that she sup­ports repa­ra­tions and would sup­port H.R. 40. But, when asked about repa­ra­tions, she point­ed to her pro­posed LIFT Act, which would give a tax cred­it to all work­ing fam­i­lies. Although she esti­mates it would lift 60 per­cent of Black peo­ple out of pover­ty, the LIFT Act is still not reparations.

Sanders has alto­geth­er been reluc­tant to endorse repa­ra­tions as pol­i­cy. In a March appear­ance on The View, he said he didn’t sup­port repa­ra­tions if it meant just writ­ing a check.” He lat­er added that he’d of course” sign a repa­ra­tions bill if one crossed his desk as pres­i­dent — but doesn’t seem par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in putting in the work to get it there. While Sanders acknowl­edges wealth, health and envi­ron­men­tal dis­par­i­ties between Blacks and whites, he main­tains the need to focus on every­one, say­ing in response to a ques­tion about repa­ra­tions, What we have got to do is pay atten­tion to dis­tressed com­mu­ni­ties — Black com­mu­ni­ties, Lati­no com­mu­ni­ties and white com­mu­ni­ties all over this coun­try.” This uncom­fort­ably mir­rors the log­ic of all lives mat­ter,” which assumes that to acknowl­edge and address a par­tic­u­lar group’s unique dis­ad­van­tages and suf­fer­ing is to dis­count or ignore oth­ers’. But it has long been Sanders’ M.O. to be col­or­blind in his pol­i­cy pro­pos­als, focus­ing instead on class. Ask any Black farmer, domes­tic work­er or vet­er­an how they fared under the New Deal — a col­or­blind pol­i­cy meant to lift all boats” that explic­it­ly exclud­ed them, at the behest of South­ern whites.

War­ren, for her part, has remained pos­i­tive but vague, declin­ing to say if she sup­ports finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion. She’s also main­tained that Native Amer­i­cans should be part of the con­ver­sa­tion, too. (I agree with War­ren that a repa­ra­tions con­ver­sa­tion is war­rant­ed for Native Amer­i­cans; I just think it’s a dif­fer­ent, sep­a­rate one.)

Mar­i­anne Williamson seems to be the most straight­for­ward and clear-head­ed in her stance on repa­ra­tions, say­ing she would allo­cate $200 to $500 bil­lion over a 20-year peri­od to edu­ca­tion­al and eco­nom­ic projects” cho­sen by an esteemed coun­cil of African Amer­i­can leaders.”

But a set of clear, con­crete repa­ra­tions pro­pos­als already exists in M4BL’s Vision for Black Lives, a detailed pol­i­cy plat­form pub­lished in 2016. Pass­ing H.R. 40 would allow us to weigh such pro­pos­als and move for­ward on implementation.

M4BL’s plat­form includes calls for resti­tu­tion for Black peo­ple, such as access to free life­time edu­ca­tion, and a uni­ver­sal basic income with a high­er rate for Black peo­ple for a set time. The plat­form also includes acknowl­edg­ment of wrongs through man­dat­ed pub­lic school cur­ricu­lums that crit­i­cal­ly exam­ine the impacts of colo­nial­ism and slav­ery, and cul­tur­al assets and mon­u­ments to com­mem­o­rate sites of Black col­lec­tive strug­gles and tri­umphs. These cul­tur­al repa­ra­tions are nec­es­sary to tell the sto­ries of African Amer­i­cans that have been untold, down­played or white­washed. They would serve as a per­ma­nent reminder of the white suprema­cist ter­ror to which Black Amer­i­cans were sub­ject­ed, while also hon­or­ing our resilience.

The plat­form demon­strates that repa­ra­tions isn’t just a check, nor is it a blan­ket pol­i­cy that ben­e­fits more Black peo­ple as hap­pen­stance. Repa­ra­tions is both back­ward-and for­ward-look­ing in its man­date to repair harm done. Whether can­di­dates embrace that prin­ci­ple will show how well they mea­sure up on their polit­i­cal will to make amends for the sake of Black futures.

For respons­es to this piece, read Uni­ver­sal Pro­grams, Not Repa­ra­tions, Are Need­ed To Counter Racis­m’s Effects” and Write Black Amer­i­cans a Check Already.”

Janaé Bon­su is co-direc­tor of BYP100, a nation­al mem­ber-based orga­ni­za­tion of young Black activists and orga­niz­ers ded­i­cat­ed to jus­tice and free­dom for all Black people.
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