What should Americans pay for Jim Crow’s legacy of slavery and a century of segregation?
For decades, the issue has been mostly academic. Then it was seized by Democrats and activists during a racial review period following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, and a number of cities and states set up commissions to study reparations to Black Americans.
Now, as those committees announce their recommendations, the political climate is very different from just three years ago. A widespread « anti-awakening » movement on the right has targeted programs targeting racial and social justice, and cash figures proposed as reparations are causing sticker shock. A California task force recently recommended more than $500 billion in reparations to black residents. San Francisco is considering a $100 billion settlement. And Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri said $14 trillion was the true national cost.
Republicans have exploited the numbers to argue that the left’s pursuit of social justice has gone mad. But for Democrats, the reemergence of the long-dormant issue raises a number of deeper problems on the horizon.
Democratic officials have for years nodded approval to the idea of reparations as a distant ideal for closing the racial wealth gap, a stance that has appealed to many Black voters, who are the party’s most loyal constituency. But rousing recommendations from lawmakers and local and state task forces are forcing Democratic leaders to wrestle with financial and political implications sooner than many would have liked.
Few Democrats in positions of power take seriously the possibility of spending billions of dollars to redistribute wealth to the descendants of slaves. But that reality is putting party leaders eager to maintain black voter loyalty in the awkward position of finding ways to say no, or not yet, or to change the subject entirely in anticipation of a dramatic improvement in the economy.
The California task force valued the awards owed to older black residents at up to $1.2 million each, compensation for the long history of housing discrimination, mass incarceration, unequal health care and other harms outlined in its report. But Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who signed into law establishing the task force, sidestepped the cost issue, saying the reparations are « much more than cash payments. »
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has expressed support for $5 million in compensation for some residents, but Mayor London Breed, a black Democrat, has not pledged to pay.
Both President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as candidates in 2020, approved a federal reparations study but spent little political capital to advance the project in the White House. Mr. Biden has spoken out about the legacy of systemic racism in America, but has not issued an executive order to create a reparations study commission, as some have urged.
« As long as people are talking about it, it’s good for Democrats, » said David Townsend, a Sacramento-based adviser to many of the moderate Democrats in the California legislature. « The problems don’t start until you have to start writing checks. »
The issue presents a dilemma that quietly divides the Democratic electoral base. In the polls, black voters they largely support reparationsbut other groups Democrats can’t afford to push out ahead of the 2024 presidential race are broadly opposed to them, including white, Asian and Hispanic voters.
According to a survey of American adults conducted by Pew Research Center in 2021, fewer than one in three Americans agree that descendants of slaves should be repaid in some way, such as land or money. 77% of black adults favored reparations, but only 18% of white adults did. Among Hispanics, support was 39% and among Asians, 33%. About half of Democrats said descendants of slaves should be compensated, while only 8% of Republicans agreed.
He led a small group of black activists the push for compensation for years, working largely in academia, think tanks and non-profit groups. But in the months since Mr. Floyd’s murder, a wider cross-section of Americans, including politicians and religious leaders, have become more vocal in their demands for direct compensation.
The Rev. Al Sharpton was among those who helped put the reparations issue on the Democratic political agenda during the party’s 2020 primaries.
In an interview, Mr. Sharpton said that even if there was never a cash payment, putting a price on injustice was a worthy exercise that forced an examination of history as Republicans largely deny that the racism of the past has left an uneven playing field today. If provocative dollar amounts caused Americans to consider the extent of the country’s moral obligation to black people, he suggested, that could lead to a more productive conversation about other ways to service that debt.
« I think once mainstream America says — whether it’s saying it reluctantly, belatedly or otherwise — ‘Yes, we have to,’ then you can have a better discussion about how we pay, » Sharpton said. « I don’t think we’ve been successful with mainstream America having to come up with the question ‘Should we?' »
Critics of reparations argue that America has already compensated for historical injustice by passing landmark civil rights and voting rights laws in the 1960s and establishing a social safety net, including welfare programs and affirmative action in college admissions and in hiring, to lift people out of poverty. They say it is morally wrong to force Americans whose ancestors played no role in slavery or Jim Crow to atone for the past and have raised the possibility of filing lawsuits. The Supreme Court is expected to ban race-conscious college admissions in a decision this spring.
The legal argument of conservative critics of reparations is that race-based government payments violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. In California, the task force decided that eligibility should be tied not only to race but to direct lineage, determining that any descendant of enslaved African Americans or a « free black person living in the United States before the end of the 19th century » should receive reparations. Some legal scholars have argued that using direct lineage has a better chance of withstanding judicial challenges.
Sen. Tim Scott, who is the only black Republican in the Senate and who announced a presidential race on Monday, rejected the idea of reparations and framed a message in the first GOP nominating states that America is a society postracial.
“I am living proof that America is the land of opportunity and not a land of oppression,” Mr. Scott said as he announced his campaign in his hometown of North Charleston, SC.
The California Reparations Task Force’s proposals will be forwarded to lawmakers in Sacramento, where they face high political and economic hurdles to become law, even in a Democrat-dominated state. For one thing, the state — whose fiscal structure leaves it open to wide swings in revenues from year to year — faces a projected budget deficit of more than $31 billion. Any hearings on the proposed laws will not take place until next year.
While the task force weighed various methods of distributing reparations, such as tuition or scholarships, it opted for direct payments to offset economic inequality. According to Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louisthe typical black family in America is worth $23,000, compared to $184,000 for white families.
« Deficits come and go, » said the Rev. Amos C. Brown, a member of the task force who was born in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era. « As a state, we need to have a moral compass that this brutal system of slavery was wrong and its legacy is being welcomed here in California. »
The politics of compensation is also complex in liberal California. More than 40 percent of the state’s population is Latino, a group that has also experienced historical discrimination. Asians are 15 percent, including the descendants of oppressed Chinese immigrant railway workers. The state has more than 100 federally recognized Native American tribes, many of which were all but wiped out in the past centuries by white settlers. Only about 6.5% of the state’s population is black.
Democrats in Congress have introduced a bill since 1989 to create a commission to study reparations, HR 40, named after the failed Civil War-era promise to freed slaves of « 40 acres and a mule. » In 2021, the bill passed the House Judiciary Committee for the first time but did not receive a minimum vote.
The momentum on the issue has shifted to the state and municipal levels in recent years. Evanston, Ill.agreed to pay $25,000 to longtime black residents who experienced housing discrimination prior to 1970. Asheville, NC has allocated $2.1 million for repairs that a commission is studying how to spend.
« The talk of reparations for Black Americans is not going away, » said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, noting that the federal government paid some forms of reparations to Japanese Americans after their internment in World War II. “This remains an unfinished business. The fact that California has done something is a testament to the topicality of this problem.
In parallel with Democratic reparations efforts, Republican-led state governments have pushed to outlaw the influence of critical race theory in schools, public agencies, and private companies. Critical race theory is the concept that racism is embedded in American institutions and supports the reparations argument.
In such a political and economic climate, Black adults are very skeptical that redress for slavery and segregation will occur. About six out of 10 black adults claiming reparations in the Pew Research Center survey said repayment was not likely at all in their lifetime.
That may explain why black voters haven’t yet shown the same frustration with a lack of progress on reparations as they do on other issues, such as voting rights, student debt relief and police reforms.
« Reparations are not a top-level issue of concern to African Americans across the country and particularly in any of the battlefield states, » said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster and strategist.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, a far-left Democrat who supports the $14 trillion settlement proposed by Missouri Congresswoman Ms. Bush, said the reason black voters don’t rate the issue higher is simple.
« People have lost hope, » Mr Bowman said.
He argued that the trillions paid would be an investment that lifts the country’s economy across all demographics. « We didn’t do enough to engage or explain how it would work, » she said. « This is a collective matter of justice for all people. »