Several Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination have come out in favor of reparations for Native Americans and African Americans in one form or another. These candidates spoke of the need for the United States government to reckon with and make up for centuries of stolen labor and legal oppression.
The idea of reparations for African Americans in particular, introduced in his essay, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014) by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, has finally come into mainstream political discourse. HR Bill 40 Reparations Study Act, introduced by Representative Conyers in 1998 -- and in every session until he retired in 2017 - never came out of the House Judiciary Committee. It was re-introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson in 2018 and has not made progress.
Senator Elizabeth Warrren has spoken approvingly of the need for reparations potentially for Native Americans and African Americans. Warren recommends a commission to study slavery and develop reparations proposals. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and presidential candidate Julian Castro suggests that the topic needs to be discussed and a new meaning of reparations of the enslaved embraced. Presidential candidate Kamala Harris voices the opinion that reparations be considered in the face of economic insecurity for many in the nation.
Marianne Williamson, best-selling author of Healing the Soul of America, is the only Democratic candidate who openly supports direct monetary compensation to the descendants of the enslaved over a course of 20 years, at a cost of $200-$500 billion.
These pro-reparations beliefs and opinions carry serious political risk for the candidates. The Marist Poll conducted in 2016 definitely indicates that a majority of Americans (68%) are opposed to cash reparations for African American descendants. While 6 in 10 African Americans are in favor of reparations, 8 in 10 white Americans are opposed to such.
This view is in line with the government apology finalized on July 29, 2009, where it is explicitly stated that the apology could not be used as a legal rationale for reparations. The disclaimer read: “Nothing in this resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”
A major argument against reparations for African Americans is that enslavement ended more than 150 years ago. Still living, however, in the United States today is a generation of African Americans whose great-grandparents were enslaved and who directly experienced the Jim Crow era. It would seem equitable to provide financial reparations for these Americans just as the survivors of Japanese detained in concentration camps received financial reparations.
For many African Americans, enslavement and legally sanctioned racial oppression were not so long ago. What is denied or willfully forgotten is the racial terrorism in the form of lynching’s as well as the willful destruction of African American neighborhoods and businesses that occurred as late as the 1940s.
Finally, is the “my family did not own slaves” or “my ancestors came to the United States after slavery” a legitimate argument? Present-day residents, no matter when they or their ancestors arrived, benefit from both the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. In the great land grabs of the 19th century, they did not fight off angry and desperate Native Americans trying to defend their lands; they did not pick tobacco, cotton, or rice under slave conditions to build the American economy that they now enjoy. Because the land was taken by force and the labor of enslaved African Americans lawful, newcomers to America were able to advance along with America’s economic progress. The United States was and continues to be an economic promised land for all who live here, all whose families immigrated.
Why are reparations so unpopular among the majority of white Americans?
- First and foremost, there is the collective belief in the ideology of white supremacy.
- There is a collective belief in the intellectual, cultural, and moral inferiority of African Americans.
- Based upon some Biblical interpretations, flawed history, science, and social science, a collective lie is held that African Americans were suited for and better off in slavery in the New World than in primitive, uncivilized Africa.
- The collective belief that African Americans continue to be unfit for equal justice and a place as citizens in the American society.
- Because of all of the above, in the collective white mind, African Americans are undeserving of reparations as of ever being treated with human dignity.
In light of the social and cultural conditioning of white Americans through the media and the miseducation related to the history of the United States that occurs in our schools, when will collective America have the courage to ask the following questions?
- Does there still exist in the United States a race-based system of oppression rooted in the ideology of white supremacy?
- If we don’t start now, then when do we delineate the sins that America must atone and make amends for?
- Is racism morally wrong?
- How exactly is racism a stain on our national history?
- Do we want to heal racism in this nation?
- Can a commission to study slavery and develop a reparation proposal be a beginning to heal racism in our nation?