The concept of the government paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans is by no means new. Since the unrealized promise of “40 acres and a mule,” Black people have promoted the issue of reparations, envisioned what reparations should look like in terms of scope, nature and potential price tag, and even proposed legislation to address compensation for centuries of kidnap, rape, plunder and forced labor, followed by years of Jim Crow segregationist terror, and present-day institutional racism.
What is different now is numerous Democratic presidential candidates, in a political party in which Black support is crucial, have expressed support for reparations. Although many Democratic politicians are invoking reparations as a buzzword, and some have mentioned some policy proposals, the question remains as to whether they are truly serious about reparations.
N’COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, says reparations should assume as many forms as necessary to address the injury caused by chattel slavery and its ongoing vestiges. Aside from cash payments, reparations include resources for repatriation of African descendants to Africa, economic and community development, land, scholarships, exoneration of political prisoners and elimination of racially unjust laws. The organization has determined there are five categories of injury from slavery, including the destruction of African peoples’ peoplehood, nationhood and culture; physical and mental health; a dual system of criminal punishment that stems from slavery and continues to treat Black people more harshly that whites to this day, and the racial wealth gap in which Black people were impoverished through enslavement, segregation and present-day economic discrimination. N’COBRA maintains that under international standards, reparations means “full repair” — to “wipe out all consequences of the illegal act” as if the injustice had not occurred.
The National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) has developed a 10-point reparations plan that includes a formal apology and establishment of an African Holocaust Institute, the right of repatriation and program to bridge the barriers between Africans in the U.S. and on the continent, and the right to land. This includes free land, and the transfer of public land to people of African descent with full autonomy and sovereignty, and for social and economic development. Other measures include resources for regional Black-owned health and wellness centers; a National Board of Education of African Ancestry to accredit African-centered educational programs in majority Black public schools; free tuition at HBCUs; funding of an African American Housing and Finance Authority to build “holistic and sustainable ‘villages’” for Black people; federal funding the Black press; preservation of Black monuments and sacred sites, and repairing the damage of the “criminal injustice system.”
At the recent National Action Network annual convention in New York, hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton, nearly all of the widening field of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders were present. And most expressed support for legislation in Congress that would further the cause of reparations. The bill introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), H.R. 40, is known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act, which would establish a commission to examine slavery and recommend remedies. The lawmaker, who has assumed the mantle from the original sponsor of the bill, former Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), said in a statement that while some people have attempted to downplay the importance of the reparations debate by focusing on monetary compensation for individuals, the real issue is whether America can grapple with a legacy of enslavement that impacts us today.
“In short, the Commission aims to study the impact of slavery and continuing discrimination against African-Americans, resulting directly and indirectly from slavery to segregation to the desegregation process and the present day,” Jackson Lee said in a statement. “The commission would also make recommendations concerning any form of apology and compensation to begin the long delayed process of atonement for slavery.” Jackson Lee called the measure a “holistic bill” that goes beyond tackling the economic implications of enslavement to explore the moral and social ramifications of the institution.
There are numerous estimates of the cost of reparations, ranging from several trillion dollars to as much as $59.2 trillion. According to Professor William “Sandy” Darity of Duke University, reparations achieves three objectives: “acknowledgment of a grievous injustice, redress for the injustice, and closure of the grievances held by the group subjected to the injustice.” Darity notes that many of the multitrillion-dollar estimates for reparations are underestimates that do not even incorporate the damage caused by slavery and the costs of Jim Crow segregation. He believes legislation and political support versus court action are necessary to bring about reparations, however substantial the popular white opposition may prove. Darity argues for a reparations portfolio including $1 trillion to $6 trillion direct payout, whether distributed as a lump sum or over time, and “’establishment of a trust fund to which eligible blacks could apply for grants for various asset-building projects, including homeownership, additional education, or start-up funds for self-employment,’ or even vouchers for the purchase of ﬁnancial assets.”
While many of the Democratic presidential hopefuls support the reparations bill in Congress, they have yet to move beyond generalities and articulate a comprehensive vision for what they believe reparations should look like. A few candidates, however, have described some vague policy prescriptions meant to take the form of reparations. For example, Sen. Kamala Harris points to her LIFT Act, which would expand the earned income tax credit for middle class families and purportedly lift 60 percent of Back families out of poverty on the grounds that Black families suffer from racial disparities.
Sen. Cory Booker has proposed the American Opportunity Account Act, a $700 billion social wealth fund or baby bonds program that would give means tested payments to 18-year-olds. Critics note the fund, meant to close the racial wealth gap, would not accomplish the task, as a wealth transfer of $15.2 trillion — amounting to 17.5 percent of U.S. wealth in 2016 — is required to accomplish the task. Booker has also introduced the Senate companion to Rep. Jackson Lee’s reparations bill. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) — who supports the reparations bill, called for repairing the racial wealth gap, a federal jobs guarantee and major tax reform. Sanders had previously said reparations would be divisive and would not pass in Congress, arguing that “I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”
Julian Castro challenged Sanders’ opposition to writing a big check, noting that programs such as Medicare for all would require doing just that. “And so, if the issue is compensating the descendants of slaves, I don’t think the argument about writing a big check ought to be the argument that you make, if you’re making an argument that a big check needs to be written for a whole bunch of other stuff,” Castro said. “So, if, under the Constitution, we compensate people because we take their property, why wouldn’t you compensate people who actually were property?”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren said it is time for a “national, full-blown conversation about reparations in this country.” “America was founded on principles of liberty and freedom and on the backs of slave labor,” Warren said at a town hall in March. “This is a stain on America, and we’re not going to fix that, we’re not going to change that until we address it head on, directly.” Warren also has noted the need to “confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country” that has kept generations of Black families from building wealth, and the need for “systemic, structural changes to address that.” The senator has also introduced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, which would address affordable housing by assisting home buyers in communities with a history of redlining.
Presidential candidate, author and activist Marianne Williamson has proposed $200 billion to $500 billion for reparations,] claiming that “anything less than $100 billion is an insult.” Williamson said she does not think the average American is racist, but rather is “vastly undereducated, underinformed about the real history of race in the United States.”
On the 400th anniversary of the enslavement of Africans in Virginia, reparations to address the damage of slavery will be costly, and yet are necessary. Democratic candidates are talking about reparations, but they are only scratching the surface.