Reparations have become a tricky subject for Democratic politicians. Thanks to (among other factors) the Black Lives Matter movement, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 “Case for Reparations” essay in the Atlantic, and the general focus on American racism occasioned by the backlash against Barack Obama’s presidency, the idea of a racially targeted compensation program—once the domain of radicals and cartoonish comedy sketches—has entered mainstream political conversation and has support among self-identified liberals. At the same time, the idea is broadly unpopular, especially with white voters. (It doesn’t have universal support among black voters, either.) The refrain of the white reparations skeptic is a familiar one: If neither I nor my ancestors owned slaves, why should I have to suffer financially for the crimes of those who did?
It’s not a strictly illogical argument, and generally speaking politicians don’t like to spend their time telling potential voters why they should be feeling more of a sense of shame and disgrace. So while some prominent Democrats like Elizabeth Warren have gotten behind at least studying the possibility of a reparations program, many others remain opposed or, like Bernie Sanders, try to avoid getting pinned down on the subject. The trick, politically, would be to make a case for reparations without making white people feel bad.
And that is where 2007 NBA free-throw percentage leader Kyle Korver comes in. Korver, a sharp-shooting veteran guard, currently plays for the Utah Jazz. In March, the Jazz banned a white fan from their arena for what the team described as “excessive and derogatory verbal abuse” of Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, who is black. Korver, who is white, was also teammates with (black) NBA veteran Thabo Sefolosha in 2015 when Sefolosha’s leg was broken while he was being arrested by New York City police officers. The officers claimed Sefolosha had resisted arrest and interfered with their investigation of an altercation involving another player, but a jury acquitted him of all charges and the city subsequently paid $4 million to settle an excessive-force lawsuit he filed against the police. In a new article in the Players Tribune, Korver writes about how those experiences changed his thinking about race—and brings up the subject of reparations in a rhetorically astute way:
Two concepts that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately are guilt and responsibility.
When it comes to racism in America, I think that guilt and responsibility tend to be seen as more or less the same thing. But I’m beginning to understand how there’s a real difference.
As white people, are we guilty of the sins of our forefathers? No, I don’t think so.
But are we responsible for them? Yes, I believe we are.
And I guess I’ve come to realize that when we talk about solutions to systemic racism — police reform, workplace diversity, affirmative action, better access to healthcare, even reparations? It’s not about guilt. It’s not about pointing fingers, or passing blame.
It’s about responsibility.
The idea, in other words, is to move the reparations-related policy conversation away from blame and toward constructive collective action. And while it wasn’t necessarily Korver’s intent to do a favor for the Democratic Party, it seems like this approach would make for a useful way for 2020 candidates to discuss reparations on the campaign trail, where positive, forward-looking imagery can score with voters even when addressing potentially divisive subjects.
The framing isn’t original to Korver. Similar language has been used by Duke professor William Darity, who has studied race and inequality for decades. “It’s not a matter of personal guilt, it’s a matter of national responsibility,” Darity said about reparations in a 2018 piece in America magazine. In an email, Darity told me he was “very impressed” by Korver’s piece, calling the guilt/responsibility distinction “critical.” Wrote the professor: “Both victimization and perpetration occur in a context of support for these injustices and atrocities from the legal system and the figures of authority in the society. Therefore, the government is the entity that must shoulder the collective blame, not any individual who may or may not have committed an atrocity. This is a structural problem, not a personal problem.” Darity added that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the extent to which reparations, as well as other “bold” policies like job guarantees and baby bonds, have become part of regular political conversation.
In summary, two-time Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Kyle Korver may be fast turning into the 2020 campaign’s most sought-after messaging consultant.