The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast from Slate about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends.
In late 2016, Barack Obama dismissed the idea of reparations during an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, saying: “As a practical matter, it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence of historic wrongs, we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to make that right.” The president went on to note, wisely, “It’s hard to find the model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts.”
Further, he went on to say that he was “not so optimistic as to think you would ever be able to garner a majority of the American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kind of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people.”
To strip the blessedly nuanced argument to its essentials, Obama is saying that he opposes reparations because a) they would be unfeasible; b) they would be unpopular; and c) their beneficial effects can be achieved in a different, better, more realistic, and fairer ways. I agree on all counts and would add that many Obama programs were in fact doing the work of “lifting all people up.”
Let us now consider the answer to the question of reparations that California Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris gave to Charlamagne tha God on The Breakfast Club radio program:
“Well look, I think that we have got to address that again, it’s back to the inequities. Look, America has a history of 200 years of slavery. We had Jim Crow. We had legal segregation in America. We’ve got to recognize back to that earlier point, people aren’t starting out on the same base, in terms of their ability to succeed. So, we have got to recognize that and give people a lift up.”
There we have it—the door to reparations has been opened by a leading Democratic candidate. Massachusetts Sen. and fellow presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren also voiced support for reparations when she told the the Washington Post of the need to institute “systemic structural changes” to support black families. Add to this chorus candidate Julián Castro’s pledge of support for reparations, and you get this Washington Post headline, “Three 2020 Democrats say yes to race-based reparations,” and this New York Times headline, “2020 Democrats embrace race-conscious policies, including reparations.”
The headlines are accurate. Castro, Warren, and Harris did indeed answer “yes” when asked the question “Should we institute reparations?” They said yes. When Barack Obama was asked the same thing, he answered, “No.” Despite that fundamental diametric disagreement, all of these Democratic politicians then endorsed the same exact same approach. They proposed broad programs that would help poor communities—programs that would benefit many, many black people.
But that is not reparations. Those are broad social programs that the Democratic Party has been championing for ages, programs that are often thwarted by Republican majorities and legislatures. The real meaning of reparations is to identify the descendants of slaves and to say to them, “Here is some money,” or, “Here are some goods or programs that we should give you as a country because of your race and our history.”
I happen to think reparations are a bad idea. Mostly because, as per the argument of Barack Obama, they are impractical, unpopular, and probably disastrous to the electoral viability of any candidate that seriously proposed them, which is why no Democrat is seriously proposing them.
Warren and Harris have good, interesting programs for the poor and the historically discriminated against. They’re just not reparations. They are not saying, “You descend from a slave, here is some restitution money.” Reparations in Germany actually happened. In 1952, as part of the Luxembourg agreement between West Germany and Israel, the government of West Germany agreed to a plan to pay survivors of the Holocaust. The first payments of over almost $8 billion in today’s dollars went to Israel, where hundreds of thousands of Germany’s victims had settled.
Even today, anyone who can prove they were in a concentration camp, ghetto, or hid from the Nazis—or were a fetus as their mother suffered such persecution—is eligible to receive 2,500 euros. In 1988, the U.S. Congress voted to give reparations to the precise Japanese people who were interned during World War II. There were still tens of thousands of them alive, and each survivor of internment received $20,000 until 1999 when the government ended the program, having spent $1.6 billion.
Nothing like that is being proposed here. Neither of the aforementioned programs paid money to the heirs of victims—you needed to be a victim (or a fetus) who directly suffered. It’s been 150 years since slavery ended in the United States, and the legacy still stains the national character, rends the national soul, and continues to unfairly stymie the progress of millions of Americans. But finding an actual administrable, sensible, workable, fair government program to address in monetary terms that historic injustice is seemingly impossible task. It’s also sure to be an unpopular one.
I can’t imagine reparations passing Congress. I also can’t imagine the specter of DNA testing to qualify for reparations, arguments over whose family immigrated from Nigeria 50 years ago, versus who could trace their lineage back 200 years—or a requirement that funding from the bottom three quintiles of white society, where the average income is $38,000, be provided in part to the top quintile of black America, where the average income is $155,000. I can’t imagine the government telling Latino Americans, “Sorry, not discriminated against enough.” I furthermore can’t imagine them telling Latino people who are black, “Sorry, your ancestors were brought to this hemisphere as part of the slave trade, but not to America.”
The candidates clearly realize these landmines are scattered about. That’s why they’re not proposing actual programs for actual reparations in the sense that the term is actually used. They are answering the question “Do you believe in reparations?” by saying, “Yes, we do, and here is my broad program to help black people.” Barack Obama answered the question, “Do you believe in reparations?” by saying, “No, I don’t, and here’s my broad program to help black people.”
What those different answers, buttressed by similar proposals, tell me is that the candidates’ perceptions of Democratic voters have radically shifted, and most candidates aren’t eager to let an opponent of theirs stake out a position to the left of them. We’re also dealing with candidates who don’t have the confidence of Barack Obama to match their rhetoric with their programs. Obama knew he was disappointing a lot of Democrats and a lot of people in the African-American community. He was fine with it. Warren and Harris are not, though Harris, post Da Breakfast Club interview, seems to have backtracked or at least obfuscated when asked to provide a yes or no answer to the reparations question.
Granted, the 2020 Democrats are running in a different age against a different background and a different set of opponents. But if they think they’re going to win a primary by telling potential voters what they think the voters want to hear, and then not match those words with actual programs, I think they damage their credibility and hurt their chances. There might be no repairing that.