Reparations on the Agenda for Presidential Hopefuls

Even New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks it’s time to consider reparations. In a column published Thursday night, Brooks said that some form of payments to descendants of enslaved people is necessary to heal the “sin” of slavery and the periods of racial injustice that followed.

“One way to capture it is to say that the other divides are born out of separation and inequality, but the racial divide is born out of sin,” he wrote. “We don’t talk about sin much in the public square anymore. But I don’t think one can grasp the full amplitude of racial injustice without invoking the darkest impulses of human nature.”

The column comes as prominent Democrats are considering that reparations should be part of the party's 2020 presidential primary, and hopefuls announce that they want to battle the systemic racial inequalities baked into the American economy. Four announced Democratic presidential candidates — Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro — have said they support some form of reparations. It started with Warren, who said in February that she wanted “systemic, structural changes” to help Black families, who “have had a much steeper hill to climb.”

But reparations are not a unifying message for Democrats. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, told the Charleston Post and Courier that he thought “pure reparations would be impossible to implement.” Clyburn said he feared that such an undertaking would be hurt by the generations that have come since slavery was abolished, per the Post and Courier:

Even some white people who have never personally felt the effects of racial discrimination could end up making claims that they have family connections to former slaves, Clyburn said, pointing to some of his acquaintances in Charleston who he said would fall under that category.

Clyburn indicated he would be in favor of an economic proposal promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, which would give significant government funds to communities that have a long history of having a population below the poverty line. Sanders has not said that he would support a direct reparations program. In a CNN town hall, Sanders responded to a question about reparations by questioning: “What does that mean? What do they mean? I'm not sure that anyone's very clear.”

The proposed policies don't seem to be considered direct reparations, but an economic policy that would be implemented with race factored in. Booker's proposal would give children in poverty savings accounts, NPR reported, while Harris supports a tax credit plan that would help low-income families. Both plans would benefit Black families who have significantly less wealth than white ones.

Although discussions of how to develop any reparations plan are still underway, the fact that the debate is happening on the national stage is progress in and of itself. Yet this discussion has been underway for hundreds of years; one of the first advocates for reparations to formerly enslaved people was Callie Guy House. Born enslaved in Tennessee, House was inspired by the pamphlet, “Freedmen's Pension Bill: A plea for American Freedmen.” House rose to lead the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, where she promoted reparations across the South.

In the 20th century the call for reparations was led by Audley Moore, an activist known as Queen Mother Moore, whose political stance “claimed that the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow systematically destroyed the culture, heritage,” wrote historian Ashley Farmer. “And rights of Africans and their descendants and that these atrocities could only be remedied through extensive economic restitution distributed by way of grassroots networks.” In 1968, Moore called for reparations of $15,000 per Black family — more than $100,000 in 2018 dollars. Two decades later, she pushed for a bill that would “examine reparations and the effects of the legacy of slavery on US life and society.”

Outside of the presidential field, Democrats are making progress when it comes to reparations. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi supports a bill that would study reparations, meaning that, in some way, shape or form, reparations could still happen.

About the Author

Jeremy Binckes is an experienced writer and editor who has reported on news, politics, culture and sports. He was most recently a news editor at Salon, but he has written articles for a number of publications.