Former President Barack Obama told singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen that the “politics of white resistance” kept him from pursuing reparations for descendants of slaves during his presidency, although he believes the payments are justified.
During the second episode of the new Spotify podcast series “Renegades: Born in the USA” Obama told the E Street Band leader that he viewed pursuing reparations as “potentially counterproductive.”
The episode, entitled “American Skin: Race in the United States,” was released Feb. 22 and is the second part of a six-part series that features conversations between Obama and Springsteen about their lives and love of country in the face of America’s challenges.
The former president’s comments about reparations came after Springsteen asked whether the country is prepared to consider reparations.
“Here we sit today, where it feels like a reckoning is being called for,” Springsteen said. “Is the country ready to deconstruct its founding myths. … Is it prepared to consider reparations, do you think?”
“So if you ask me, theoretically, are reparations justified? The answer is yes,” Obama responded. “There’s not much question.”
He added, “The wealth of this country, the power of this country, was built in significant part on the backs of slaves.
“They built the house I stayed in for a while,” Obama said, adding that systematic oppression and racism have impacted Black families’ ability to build wealth long after slavery and Jim Crow laws came to an end.
“If you’re thinking of what’s just, you would look back and you would say descendants of those who suffered those kinds of terrible cruel, often arbitrary injustices deserve some sort of redress, some support of compensation, recognition.”
However, he challenged the practically of fully executing a plan for distributing reparations for descendants of slaves.
“Could you actually get that kind of justice?” Obama questioned. “Could you get a country to agree and own that history? And my judgment was that as a practical matter that was unattainable.
“What I saw during my presidency was the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens and the talk of the underserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action — all that made the prospect of actually proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparation program struck me as, politically, not only a nonstarter but potentially counterproductive.”
Obama also said “working-class white folks” and others who are in debt or struggle to pay bills “wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of a massive program that is designed to deal with the past but isn’t speaking to their future.”
The median white household held $188,200 in wealth in 2019, compared to the typical Black household wealth of $24,100, the Brookings Institution reported.
Bill H.R. 40, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, considers “a national apology and proposal for reparations” for slavery and the discrimination against Black Americans that followed. A hearing for the bill, which has been reintroduced since 1989, was held on Feb. 17.
“The government must account for its ongoing role in perpetuating, supporting and upholding white supremacy,” said Rep. Cori Bush, during the Feb. 17 hearing.
The podcast series “Renegades: Born in the USA” will feature six episodes released weekly, exclusively on Spotify.