Bernie Sanders: Define ‘Empowerment’ Before Reparations

On Monday morning, Senator Bernie Sanders, who recently launched his 2020 presidential candidacy, sat down with New York City morning radio show “The Breakfast Club” to address an array of topics including mass incarceration and Medicare for All.

The Vermont legislator discussed how his economic initiatives would benefit African American voters, but things started to get a bit testy when "The Breakfast Club" host Charlamagne Tha God asked Sanders whether he was “dodging” the issue of reparations for Black Americans after centuries of segregation and discrimination. “I’m not dodging the question. The question is ‘What do we mean by reparations?’” Sanders responded. “To my mind, it means that we have to deal with the fact that there is enormous disparity between the Black community and white community and that issue has to be addressed.” While Charlamagne attempted to stay on the topic of economic empowerment for descendants of enslaved people, Sanders once again questioned what economic empowerment meant. Sanders added that he vows to change the banking system and pay attention to “distressed communities.”

However, when Charlamagne asked about “straight cash payouts,” Sanders simply said “no.” As the host kept pressing on more direct answers from Sanders, the lawmaker emphasized that “there should be something done specifically for African Americans.” Sanders has previously addressed the topic of reparations during a CNN Town Hall in February with similar rhetoric. “There are massive disparities that must be addressed,” he said at the time, adding that “I think we have to do everything that we can to end institutional racism in this country. It is not acceptable to me that the rate of childhood poverty among the African American community is over 30 percent in this country — that is beyond belief — that African Americans die from cancer at higher rates than whites.” Early this month, he discussed reparations on ABC’s The View, declaring,

“Right now our job is to address the crises facing the American people in our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check." Sanders has caught some flak over his stance on reparations. “Bernie Sanders says ‘yes’ to free college education, universal healthcare, $15 minimum wage without a great level of detail. But when he's asked about reparations for descendants of slaves, he demurs and implies we need more details on it. We need courage,” Charlotte Clymer of Human Rights Campaign tweeted last month.

“Bernie Sanders thinks reparations is ‘just writing a check’ instead of a redress for state sanctioned terrorism, violence, and being shut out of the economic, political, and legal systems for 250+ years. How is reparations ‘just writing a check,’ and free college not?” author Marcus H. Johnson wrote.

Others, however, have defended Sanders’ questioning over reparations. “At this point, Sanders asked a crucial, as yet unasked question: ‘What does that mean? What do they mean? I don’t think anyone’s been very clear.’ And he’s right,” wrote The Intercept’s Brianna Gray. “Up until now, no one’s bothered to define reparations in the context of 2020 vetting. And the discourse has suffered for it.”

Other 2020 presidential candidates such as senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), as well as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ), have expressed support for reparations. Nevertheless, Democratic candidates have struggled to explain what reparation policies would entail or if their economic plans address this issue.

Darrick Hamilton, executive director of Ohio-based Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, wrote, “For clarity, I am a scholar-advocate for reparations; and, without equivocation, I am a fan and supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders, and further that my support for the senator is not contingent on him having a comprehensive plan for reparation.”

Recent discussions over reparations emerged after The Atlantic author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a feature piece for the magazine’s June 2014 edition. “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole,” the article noted.

About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review,, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and U.S. politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.