The Reparations Debate

Given that we live with the overt racism of the Trump regime at the moment, it is surprising that the issue of paying reparations for slavery has become a prominent issue among Democratic presidential candidates, but it has.

Higgledy piggledy, the Democratic Party will arrive at some position on the issue of reparations. It has to. African Americans are one of, if not the, most loyal constituency of the Party and the group that, by some measures, has suffered more in the history of the United States than any other, starting well before the United States even existed.

Every major Democratic candidate for president has stated a position on the issue.

But what are reparations? The word comes from the same root as “repair,” Latin reparare, “to make ready again.” It denotes money paid to compensate victims for some harm they have suffered, usually at the level of a population. So, after World War I, England and France imposed huge reparations on Germany as part of the claim that Germany had started the war and caused enormous harm to England and France with it, and so owed them money to repair the harm.

Similarly, modern African Americans, in the operative sense (Barack Obama is literally African American in having an African father and an American mother, but he is not the descendant of slaves, unlike Michelle Obama) are the descendants of persons who lived as slaves in British North America and the United States until 1865, when we ended legal slavery, and under a regime of legal segregation in most of the nation where most of them continued to live for another 100 years after that.

People who want to avoid this topic like to focus on individuals such as Oprah Winfrey, who is a billionaire, and Colin Kaepernick, who is a rich National Football League player, but they are very much exceptions. As a class, African Americans still fall out at the bottom of every metric of social well being.

The racist explanation for this problem is to say that African Americans just don’t work hard enough, have unstable families, and bring their plight on themselves.

The intelligent way to explain it is to recognize that the history of slavery and segregation mean that, if your ancestors were in the United States before 1965 and were not African American, they were free to pursue whatever career they wanted, accumulate wealth, and generally live their lives without arbitrary, invidious discrimination. Our nation has a history of discriminating against Jews and Catholics, and the first law restricting immigration to the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but only African Americans spent the entire period from 1619, very early in English settlement of North America, to 1865 living mostly as slaves, who earned no money for their labor and could not accumulate wealth or make any other basic choices about their lives.

So there is the issue of what slavery and segregation robbed the slaves of. There is also the point that all of the wealth of the United States — the richest nation in the history of the world — rests on slave labor. Slavery was mostly confined to the South, where plantation agriculture worked best, but even in commercial centers such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, much of the business they built their fortunes on stemmed from providing materials and services to the Atlantic trade, of which slaves were a key component.

Exactly what form reparations would take and how to distribute them are very much open questions. Presumably, if the political will ever exists in Congress to pay reparations to African Americans, Congress will work those details out then. Major civil rights legislation passed Congress under the adept leadership of Democratic president Lyndon Johnson with help from moderate Republicans to overcome the die hard resistance of the Democrats who represented southern districts full of people who desperately wanted to keep racial segregation.

Those Democrats mostly became Republicans and took over that Party, such that there are no moderate Republicans any more, so any law providing reparations will have to come from a Congress under the control of Democrats with a Democratic president.

Aside from reparations, the Democratic presidential candidates are already mindful of attracting black votes. Everyone noticed that the nation’s first black president won easily twice, but that his Party lost on a technicality in an election that saw systematic efforts by Republicans to suppress black votes and racial resentment played a major role in defining their candidate’s platform and appeal.

So focusing on black voters is both the right thing to do, and politically astute. The 2018 elections returned a House of Representatives that has far more racial and ethnic minority members than any of its predecessors and is a better indication of where the nation is going than the 2016 election. Reparations is certainly not the only issue African American voters care about, but it can easily serve as a proxy for candidates’ willingness to work for African American votes.

On this score, Bernie does not seem to have learned anything from 2016, when his inability to appeal to black voters played an important role in his loss of the nomination to Hillary Clinton, who has a much stronger bond with them than does Bernie. Among the leading Democratic candidates so far, he is the only one who has flatly stated that he does not support reparations for African Americans. One could admire his honesty, but one could also think he could have and should have finessed his response. As one story on the topic explains, the candidates who say that they do support reparations apparently have varying ideas about what that might mean. One can reasonably say that one supports the concept and leave open what exactly that would mean.

Trump, assuming he survives to 2020, is an anomaly in U.S. political history. If one looks back to Abraham Lincoln, the president who has taken the position more in favor of helping African Americans has won the presidency when the issue was highly salient. Lincoln did not advocate immediate emancipation of slaves, but he did advocate limiting the expansion of slavery into new states. Teddy Roosevelt scandalized the nation by inviting leading African American educator Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. He went on to win in his own right during the 1904 presidential election. In 1948, as Harry Truman faced a difficult reelection battle, he chose to make African American civil rights the center of his campaign. He won a surprise victory after ordering the racial desegregation of the U.S. military.

Lyndon Johnson presided over passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the single most important African American civil rights legislation in our history, and later won election to his own term as president in a landslide. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was explicit about his concern for the situation of African Americans. He was the first Democrat to win the presidency after Johnson made the Democrats the Party of civil rights.

Some people have said, in varying degrees of jest, that Bill Clinton was the nation’s first black president, partly because he came from the south and had a southerner’s understanding of African American culture, partly because he appealed strongly to black voters.

But the real reason why the Democrats need to figure out what do to about reparations is that African American voters have no good reason to give it up, and the Party does best, and the nation will do best, when they can overcome the division that Republicans deliberately play up between working class white voters and African Americans.

This dynamic has operated since the end of slavery. In the late 19th century, the Populists organized both black and white farmers in the South into a potential political bloc that scared the white plutocrats, who pulled out all of the racist stops to get white farmers to align politically with rich white people at the expense of their obvious class interests, which were aligned with black farmers. It worked well and allowed white leaders to cement the regime of racial segregation that persisted until 1964.

After the Voting Rights Act made black voters relevant again, Richard Nixon came up with a device to split the New Deal coalition by pitting working class whites against African Americans. He instituted an affirmative action program in the skilled building trades, which put African Americans directly in competition with working class white people for specific jobs. This was an initial foray in the basic dynamic that Republicans still rely on to this day of finding more or less subtle ways to tell working class white people that any federal government spending on domestic programs mostly takes money from them and gives it to lazy black people.

Reagan talked about “welfare queens,” knowing that the image in most white people’s heads would be a black woman who used food stamps. The elder George Bush used the notorious Willie Horton ad against a northern Democrat who was tepid on race issues. Under Clinton, Republicans passed “welfare reform,” adding work requirements to federal benefits and a lifetime cap to the program Johnson had created, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Race was not a particularly salient issue in the early 2000s, and Al Gore was too patrician to adapt Clinton’s appeal to black voters. With Obama taking office during the worst recession since the Great Depression, Republicans called him the “foodstamp president.” Rick Santorum, always very white, always loyal Republican, said flatly that he did not want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money. But such veiled racism failed to stop Obama from winning twice.

Obviously, Santorum’s claim is ridiculous. Simple arithmetic tells us that, with roughly 14% of the population, African Americans cannot be the primary recipients of federal benefits by numbers. African Americans may collect benefits at a higher rate than white people, but white people still make up the majority of beneficiaries.

But perceptions matter in politics, and Republicans are only too happy to exploit any misinformation among the electorate to win any election, as Trump proved by claiming that we face an emergency at the border and need to build the wall, despite the complete absence of any such emergency.

We know Democrats can beat the racist appeal of the Republicans. The African American demand for reparations helps makes race more salient in the election. It pushes the envelope, but in sort of the same way that the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act did. It presents race and racism as a stark moral choice. Most white people may be more indifferent to racial issues and racism than they should be, or than most African Americans like, but they do not want to look overtly racist. Overtly racist appeals rarely work. Trump is an anomaly. He disguised his racism as attacks on undocumented immigrants, who do not fit neatly into the racial framework of U.S. politics and allow his supporters to insist that “Mexican isn’t a race,” even though the logic is not at all different. African Americans saw the danger and gave Trump only 8% of their votes.

And Trump lost the popular vote.

Black voters were obviously key to Obama’s winning coalition. He did his best to help Hillary in 2016, but being president constrained him in ways that will not operate in 2020. He’s clearly fired up for the next election.

So it’s time to do the right thing — delve into the undoubtedly difficult, messy discussion about compensating the descendants of slaves for the horrible injustice the slave suffered and that their suffering inevitably bequeathed to their progeny, continuing to the present day.

It’s the right thing to do, and for Democrats, it is likely to be a winning issue.

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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