In a CNN town hall in March, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren became the latest candidate to bring one of the most controversial political topics in America into the spotlight: “I believe it’s time to start the national full-blown conversation about reparations in this country.”
Warren is one of several 2020 presidential candidates who has advocated for a serious discussion about reparations, which is the idea that descendants of slaves should be compensated in return for the forced labor and bodily harm done to their ancestors. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who are both black, have discussed the need to have conversations around the issue.
Reparatations used to be a fringe idea — at least among white politicians — but it’s receiving more attention from mainstream Democrats in the 2020 presidential campaign. Many of the declared Democratic presidential candidates have identified a position on reparations, or at least support having a national conversation about the issue.
As the topic enters the political mainstream, Americans may be forced to reckon with the racial injustices of the past and present, even if these discussions don’t result in full reparations.
A history of opposition
In January 1865, as the Civil War was winding down to a close, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, dictating that freed slaves would receive land parcels on the coast between South Carolina and Florida.
The order allocated 400,000 acres of land — 40 acres per family — and directed that these lands be governed by black people themselves, with the “sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves.” Sherman later ordered that the army could give the new settlers mules.
President Andrew Johnson reversed the order in 1865, allowing the plantation owners who once owned the land to return. But the promise of “40 acres and a mule” for those formerly enslaved has echoed through history as a mantra for supporters of reparations: the idea that for the injustices that they had endured, some kind of payment was owed.
Supporters of reparations argue that 250 years of slavery, plus a century and a half of racial terrorism, segregation, discriminatory housing policies and other injustices mean that reparations for black people are just as necessary today as they were in 1865. However, the idea has remained politically unpopular, according to recent polling.
A 2018 poll by the left-leaning organization Data For Progress found that 26 percent of Americans supported reparations. A 2016 Marist poll also found that 26 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should compensate black Americans as “a way to make up for the harm caused by slavery and other forms of racial discrimination.”
However, a February Gallup poll found that only 18 percent of black Americans are satisfied with how blacks are treated in the U.S. today. An April Pew poll revealed that 84 percent of black Americans “believe the legacy of slavery affects the position of black people in American society today a great deal/fair amount.” The 2016 Marist poll also showed that nearly 60 percent of black Americans support reparations.
But the unpopularity of the idea may also stem from the way reparations was defined in the polling questions. For instance, the Marist poll asked whether the U.S. “should or should not pay reparations, that is, should or should not pay money to African-Americans who are descendants of slaves.” Direct payment to the descendants of slaves may be the simplest expression of the solution, but it’s viewed by many as impractical and may not be the most effective way to try to right this historic wrong.
In Congress, a bill to create a commission to study reparations and its implementation — H.R. 40, named for the “40 acres and a mule” promise — has languished in the House since former Rep. John Conyers first introduced it in 1989. But Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced the bill in January.
Former President Barack Obama, the first black president in American history, is among those who thinks reparations are not “practical.” In 2016, he said he suggested the better approach might be to throw more resources into moving children out of poverty.
“I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability, to mobilize the American people around a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country than I am in being able to mobilize the country around providing a benefit specific to African-Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow,” Obama said in an interview with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic in 2016. (Coates wrote a well-regarded article in 2014, “The Case for Reparations,” which stirred interest in reparations among white reporters and politicians.)
If the economic proposals espoused by presidential candidates like Warren, Booker and Harris are any indication, they hew more closely to Obama’s belief about reparations — that the better approach might be to address income inequality across the board, and not just African-Americans hurt by the legacy of slavery and racial segregation in America.
William “Sandy” Darity, a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and an expert on racial inequality and reparations, said that the candidates’ proposed plans broadly addressing income inequality might also help to diminish the racial inequality gap, but he does not think that they go far enough to make a difference in the lives of black people.
“I think that the primary objective of a reparations program has to be elimination of the racial wealth gap,” Darity said, since policies such as slavery and segregation were responsible for poorer economic outcomes for African-Americans in the first place. Darity is co-writing a book on reparations that he expects to publish in 2020.
Here are some of the candidates’ income inequality proposals:
Booker’s proposed American Opportunity Accounts Act, commonly known as “baby bonds,” would provide every child born in the United States with a $1,000 savings bond. The child would receive up to $2,000 every year, based on family income. The child would be able to access the account at age 18, and only for allowable uses, like education and home ownership.
If a family of four lives below the federal poverty line — living on $25,100 or less — a child would receive an additional $2,000 each year. This would give the child around $46,000 by the age 18. The size of the additional deposits decreases as family income increases; a child in a family earning roughly $56,000 would receive $500 a year, while a child in a family with an income of around $125,000 would get no additional deposits.
A study by Naomi Zewde of Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy found that the baby bonds proposal would “reduce generational wealth disadvantages and improve the net asset position of young African American households,” and “reduce the black-white wealth disparity from a factor of 15.9 to 1.4 at the median.”
This proposal, inspired in part by ideas floated by Darity and Darrick Hamilton of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, would diminish the racial wealth gap. But, Darity is quick to note, it would not eliminate it completely — meaning that he does not consider it true reparations.
“I’ve actually endorsed this proposal but I don’t view it as reparations,” Darity said about the baby bonds. “From the standpoint of dealing with general wealth inequality, the Booker proposal is a pretty good one. But from the standpoint of dealing with racial inequality, it’s wholly inadequate.”
Booker has also introduced a bill in the Senate to create a committee which would study reparations, a companion bill to H.R. 40 in the House.
Harris’ proposal, the LIFT The Middle Class Act, would provide up to $3,000 a year for a single person or $6,000 a year for a married couple, given in a lump sum at the beginning of the year or in monthly installments. Working families earning $100,000 or less would qualify.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan institute, found that Harris’ plan would lift 9 million Americans out of poverty, according to the Atlantic.
However, the proposal is an income supplement. Because black Americans already have a far lower median income than white Americans, providing an additional $6,000 a year would not close the disparity. Pew Research Center calculated in 2014 that black median income was around $43,300, while white median income was around $71,300.
“A $6,000 allocation that goes to all families who have incomes below $100,000 will do very little in terms of closing the racial wealth gap, although it could be helpful in terms of reducing the kind of economic stresses that families are confronted with,” Darity said.
Warren’s proposal to diminish income inequality is based on housing. Warren has proposed the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, which includes a provision that would offer grants to first-time homebuyers who live in formerly redlined neighborhoods or areas which were previously segregated by law and remain low-income. Redlining occurred when the federal government denied housing subsidies to black Americans, pushing them into certain higher-risk neighborhoods.
“This enormous gap is a moral stain on our country. And because the government bears a big part of the blame for it, the government should take real steps to fix it,” Warren said in a Medium post of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State Universityexplaining her proposal. The post also notes that the plan has been endorsed by Professors Mehrsa Baradaran and Darrick Hamilton, who have said it “has the potential to make a substantive dent in closing our enormous and persistent racial wealth gap.”
However, while this bill will redress some of the harm done by federal housing laws against black homeowners, not all formerly redlined neighborhoods are still majority-black, and not all homeowners seeking to move into these communities are black, due to gentrification.
“It is uniquely focused on home ownership and the barriers to home ownership that were associated with the post-World War II period for black potential homeowners,” Darity said. “But it doesn’t address at all the huge litany of injustices that has been inflicted on black Americans from slavery to the present moment.”
Only two candidates have explicitly endorsed reparations: Marianne Williamson and Julian Castro. Castro has not yet offered specifics on his plan, although he said in an interview with The Grio that reparations could come in the form of housing reform or educational investment.
Williamson’s proposal has varied in price, ranging from $100 billion up to $500 billion. Her reparations plan would not involve payments to individuals, but rather would “apply this money to economic projects and educational projects of renewal” for African-Americans.
However, critics argue that this is not nearly enough: Darity has calculated that reparations to black Americans could cost a minimum of $1.5 trillion.
Responses from candidates on the fence
Several candidates have expressed interest in discussing how the history of racial inequality in the U.S. could be addressed, although they may not necessarily support reparations.
Sanders has been the most dismissive of reparations. In 2016, Sanders said it was “its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil” and that it was very “divisive.”
At another CNN town hall in February, Sanders questioned the definition of the term when told that Warren and Castro had indicated support for reparations.
“What does that mean? What do they mean? I’m not sure that anyone’s very clear,” Sanders said, although he continued, “As a result of the legacy of slavery, you have massive levels of inequality.”
When asked if he still believed reparations would be divisive, Sanders said, “it depends on what the word means.”
However, in his speech at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention in April, Sanders said that he would be willing to sign H.R. 40 to create a commission to study the topic.
“If the House and Senate passed that bill, of course I would sign it,” Sanders said. “There needs to be a study, but let me also say this, that I think that what we need to do…is to pay real attention to the most distressed communities in America.”
Sanders also supports the “10-20-30” proposal by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn which would require that a minimum of 10 percent of federal funds go to communities in which the poverty level has been twenty percent or higher over the past thirty years.
O’Rourke told voters in Iowa that it was necessary to have a conversation about reparations before taking any action.
“At the root of the word ‘reparations’ is ‘repair’…in order to make sure we repair this country, we first have to confront the truth,” O’Rourke said, arguing that conversations need to start happening at a community level before it could be addressed by the government.
“We have to be able to have conversations in homes like this one. There has to be the political will developed so then we can take action nationally,” O’Rourke said.
At the National Action Network convention in April, O’Rourke confirmed to Rev. Al Sharpton that he would sign H.R. 40 if he became president. He added that he had “never seen a major Democratic candidate for president talk about white privilege.”
In an interview with Esquire, Buttigieg said that “the cleanest way” to redress wrongs done to black Americans were to focus on policies which address inequality.
“I’ve never seen a specific, workable proposal. But what I do think is convincing is the idea that we have to be intentional about addressing or reversing harms and inequities that didn’t just happen on their own,” Buttigieg said. He suggested a strategy whereby focusing on housing and criminal justice could disproportionately benefit people of color, similar to the ideas presented by Booker, Warren and Harris.
“I think that’s one way that we can be intentional and make a difference on this. I’ve just not seen a cash transfer mechanism that’s been laid out that you can envision working that most people would think is fair,” Buttigieg said.
In an interview on “The View,” Buttigieg suggested a policy similar to Warren’s, focused on assisting homeowners in formerly redlined areas. He also said that he supports H.R. 40.