Reparations: Democrats renew debate over how to heal the legacy of slavery – By Oliver Laughland and Hubert Adjei-Kontoh (The Guardian) / March 21 2019
Where do 2020 Democratic candidates stand on reparations for slavery?
The brutal history of American racism is visible at almost every turn in the port city of Charleston.
The old slave market still stands a few blocks from the harbour, where up to 60% of enslaved Africans brought to America entered the country. A few miles off the coast is Fort Sumter national monument from where, in 1861, the first shots of the American civil war were fired by the Confederacy. Further downtown is the Mother Emanuel AME church, whose leaders were executed in 1822 for backing a failed slave revolt, and where in 2015 nine black parishioners were murdered in a racist hate crime that shook the country.
But the economic toll of this history is perhaps a little more hidden. The tech industry here is growing as quickly as Silicon Valley. Automotive and aeronautical giants have recently expanded their operations, creating thousands of new jobs. The city is now ranked as America’s third most prosperous. And yet, for all the progress, black residents have shared less of the success.
A recent report examining the state of race relations in Charleston county found that black citizens here earned 60% less than white counterparts, a disparity that has not improved in the past 50 years. Black unemployment here is double white unemployment. And 42% of black children in the county live below the poverty line compared with 11% of white children.
The report’s authors, academics at the College of Charleston, charted in unsparing detail the assortment of public policy and institutional failures that have perpetuated this inequality over generations. But, they argued, the root causes remain clear: “The inequities outlined herein have a direct correlation to the legacy of slavery and the turbulent aftermath of Reconstruction, both of which shaped not only the racial climates of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the socioeconomic landscape of our nation.”
Charleston, of course, is the rule not the exception. Across the US black families have an average net worth of $17,100, a tenth of the average accumulated wealth of white households, according to US government statistics. Economists routinely point to the legacy of slavery as the starting point to explain the wealth gap.
‘It can’t be superficial’: Democrats and the debate around reparations
It is against this backdrop that an issue, which has appeared sporadically throughout modern American political discourse, has already come to the fore during campaigning by Democratic candidates ahead of the 2020 US election: reparations to the descendants of slaves.
As the field of candidates continues to expand, at least four in the current crop have signalled some degree of support for reparations. It marks a significant contrast to previous Democratic campaign cycles, as both Hillary Clinton and the country’s first African American president, Barack Obama, voiced explicit opposition.
* Jesse Jackson has long advocated for monetary reparations for the descendants of slaves. Photograph: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
“If they [Democratic candidates] deal with this it can’t be superficial,” said the civil rights leader Rev Jesse Jackson in an interview with the Guardian. “It can’t just be that I am to the left of the right. It requires a serious study of history. It requires serious scientific study.”
Jackson has long advocated for monetary reparations and placed the issue central to his own unsuccessful runs for president in 1984 and 1988.
“When I ran for president, the big question was could a black run. Could a black compete on the stage with white people. Could we discuss foreign policy?” Jackson said.
The 77-year-old argues that now, as 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship’s arrival in Jamestown, should mark a turning point in the issue’s elevation into mainstream politics.
He describes reparations as part of the final step in “four stages of struggle”. “We say stage one is fighting legal slavery, stage two is fighting legal Jim Crow, stage three is the right to vote, and the fourth stage is access to capital, industry and technology. We are early in the morning in this phase.”
The issue has been the subject of rigorous academic research with some estimates suggesting an effective program could cost up to $14tn. One of America’s foremost experts on the issue, Duke University professor William Darity Jr, advocates a program that combines a portfolio of race specific payments and policy, including subsidized healthcare and further education for those who can trace their roots back to slavery, along with individualized payments and trust funds.
Reparations for slavery are not about punishing children for parents’ sins
The discussion among Democratic 2020 candidates is far from this specific. It ranges from categorically ruling out any race-targeted program (the position held by Bernie Sanders), to presenting universal programs aimed at supporting lower and middle income families as a way of addressing the wealth gap (Kamala Harris and Cory Booker), to the creation of a taskforce to examine the possibility of race specific reparations (Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren), and finally the creation of a $100bn fund to finance direct payments to the descendants of slaves (Marianne Williamson).
In an interview, Darity acknowledged that almost none of these programs realistically constituted the sort of reparations his research has advocated, but suggested even the fact the debate existed at all should be seen as a positive advance.
“Suddenly the term reparations is not verboten in the public square,” Darity said. “So that to me is a very significant change. I think that now there is a certain type of gravitas or credibility that it has, which leads the conversation to be a serious one, and I think that’s important.”
* Kamala Harris has acknowledged the need to repair historic wrongs on the black community. Photograph: Pool/Getty Images
There are others though who argue, however, that the discussion has provided a new sheen to some candidates who have a mixed record advocating for communities of colour.
Julián Castro, the former housing secretary under Obama, has historically been accused by activists of favouring private equity groups over poorer black and brown communities in his management of mortgage sales. Some of Kamala Harris’s tough-on-crime policies in San Francisco have been criticized for disproportionately punishing people of colour.
“I think candidates’ pro forma endorsement of reparations is just that,” said Adolph Reed, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Sanders is the only one who is honest about the wrongheadedness of the notion. It’s not a serious policy-based issue, both because it is an unnecessarily convoluted way to pursue a redistributive politics and because there’s no realistic way to imagine winning a legislative agenda for it.”
The US has, of course, made specific payments to abused minority groups in the past.
The US has paid reparations before
In 1988 Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which compensated over 100,000 Japanese Americans who were held in internment camps during the second world war. The legislation gave $20,000 to each survivor and offered a formal apology. The US government has paid billions to various Indigenous nations, both through the courts and in legislation, over land rights issues.
In 2005 the US Senate passed a resolution apologizing for its failure to enact a federal law against lynching during the Jim Crow era, marking the first time Congress had offered a formal apology to African Americans for any reason at all.
And yet, the idea of offering any form of monetary reparations to black Americans remains a deeply unpopular idea among general voters – recent polling suggests just 26% are supportive.
So why has the concept even become a discussion point come debate season?
Darity points to its more favourable rating among black voters, a key constituency in the pathway to the Democratic nomination. “Growing segments of the African American population view reparations as a litmus test for trusting or having confidence in a particular candidate,” Darity said.
* Julian Castro has suggested creating a taskforce to examine the possibility of race specific reparations. Photograph: John Locher/AP
At a summit in Charleston earlier this month celebrating small African American owned businesses, the California senator Kamala Harris addressed a crowd of around 300 people keen to hear about her plans to confront the wealth gap.
Harris, who is vying to become the first black female nominated to run for president by the Democratic party, is one of those who has expressed rhetorical acknowledgement of the need to repair historic wrongs on the black community. Her signature policy proposal, the Lift Act, is a universal tax credit for families earning under $100,000.
“I’ve done the math on it,” she told the crowd. “1.4m South Carolina families will benefit from this. One million children in South Carolina will benefit from it. Nationally, 60% of black families will be lifted out of poverty because of my initiative.”
There are ripples of applause. But some in the crowd are not completely won over, rightly pointing out this is not a targeted program of reparations but a universal tax plan.
‘Political leadership mandates not following the polls’
Clinton Brantley, a pastor at St Matthews church – one of the larger congregations in the area – is one of those who remembers the issue at the time Jesse Jackson ran in the 1980s.
“It’s something we’ve been kicking around for some time, and I don’t know if anything will come of it now,” he said. “But I believe that reparations are in order. I’m 77 years old. I was born on a farm and I remember when we were promised land, and land was taken away from us. Folks just didn’t have money then, but we paid our taxes regardless.”
* Clinton Brantley plans to vote for Kamala Harris, despite her lack of a race-targeted reparations policy. Photograph: Oliver Laughland
Despite her lack of a specifically race-targeted policy Brantley still planned to vote for Harris at this stage.
The primary season is in its infancy. And it remains to be seen how and if the debate on reparations will evolve. But for Darity, this an issue that should transcend the sway of popular opinion.
“Political leadership mandates not following the polls,” Darity said. “But trying to move the nation in the moral direction, so even if there is at any given moment a low degree of support for doing the right thing, true political leadership would mean that one would promote doing the right thing and try to bring public sentiment along.”