The 2020 Candidates Are Dodging the Reparations Question

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

Janaé Bonsu

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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