Castro, Harris, Warren declare support for reparations. What does that mean in policy terms?

Here’s America’s first black president talking about reparations for slavery and systematic discrimination.

Obama: Theoretically, you can make, obviously, a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps. That those were wrongs done to the black community as a whole, and black families specifically, and that in order to close that gap, a society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it’s not in the form of individual reparations checks, but in the form of a Marshall Plan, in order to close those gaps. It is easy to make that theoretical argument. But as a practical matter, it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence of historic wrongs, we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to make that right. […]

Obama: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I guess, here’s the way—probably the best way of saying it is that you can make a theoretical, abstract argument in favor of something like reparations. And maybe I’m just not being sufficiently optimistic or imaginative enough—

Coates: You’re supposed to be optimistic!

Obama: Well, I thought I was, but I’m not so optimistic as to think that you would ever be able to garner a majority of an American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kinds of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people.

— Dec 2016 interview:…

In a sign of how far Democrats have come in a two years, several major presidential candidates are now on the record as saying they support some form of reparations for black Americans impacted by the legacy of slavery and discrimination.

In an interview on The Breakfast Club last week Sen. Kamala Harris agreed with a host when he asked whether government reparations were necessary. Her campaign followed that up with a statement released to the NY Times, Ms. Harris said:

“We have to be honest that people in this country do not start from the same place or have access to the same opportunities. I’m serious about taking an approach that would change policies and structures and make real investments in black communities.” —…

But Senator Harris is not the only candidate saying this in 2019. So is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Julian Castro.

Ms. Warren also said she supported reparations for black Americans impacted by slavery — a policy that experts say could cost several trillion dollars, and one that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and many top Democrats have not supported.

The Warren campaign declined to give further details on that backing, but it came amid her calls for the federal government to provide special home-buying assistance to residents of communities that were adversely affected by “redlining,” the discriminatory practice of denying mortgages, usually in poor and nonwhite areas.  […]

That two leading Democratic candidates have embraced reparations — the concept that the federal government should both acknowledge the ongoing legacy of slavery and discrimination and provide compensatory payment to those affected — is a major shift from past presidential campaigns and a win for activists who have tried to push the issue into the mainstream for decades. Julián Castro, the former cabinet secretary who is also running for president, has also indicated that he would support reparations.


None of the candidates has outlined policies or proposals that would address the question of reparations, which is where the rubber is going to meet the road. As Obama noted, there are several considerations, including gaining Congressional support, and what form such reparations take. For example “investments in affected communities” could mean a whole lot of things that aren’t very different what general progressive proposals.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is widely considered to be the most progressive candidate in the race has thus far offered a different response to the question of reparations. Here’s Briahna Gray describing Bernie’s position:

Prior to the 2016 election, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who ultimately voted for Sanders, wrote, “Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policy — doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation.”

But the Democratic Party has never backed anything approaching the redistributive goals contemplated by Sanders’s 2016 agenda. The party’s economic plan has historically focused on economic mobility, “access” to “opportunity,” and removing barriers to participating in a capitalist economy. Child care programs, paid sick leave, and job training initiatives are promoted as strategies to ensure that all Americans can participate in what most Democrats see as a fundamentally functional system. —…

She then goes on to note that the accumulated wealth disparity between black Americans and all others would take centuries to address under any “rising tide” approach. Here’s Bernie talking specifically about reparations two years ago, and this is the clip Coates was referring to.

Though in many ways, it appears Bernie is discussing the same sorts of proposals other candidates are alluding to, this was a dissatisfying response for many supporters (including me), and I am hopeful Sen. Sanders will have a better response in 2019.

In terms of concrete actions, we have one we can ask all candidates about.

For decades Rep. John Conyers had proposed H.R. 40, a bill to authorize a commission to explore the impact of slavery and the question of reparations. The bill’s summary reads:

To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes. —…

In the current Congress, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-18) has offered up the same bill. It currently has 25 co-sponsors, though in the past it has had as many as 48. Establishing a commission to study the issue is a simple, concrete first step that all our candidates should be able to get behind. It also allows us to have a more meaningful conversation around the kind of policies that would be effective at addressing the long-term, inter-generational impacts of slavery and systemic racism.

ACTIONPlease call your Representative and ask them to co-sponsor Rep. Jackson Lee’s H.R. 40.

This latest iteration of Democrats’ evolving views on reparations seems to have been sparked by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said:

I will also note that any such discussion of reparations must include native american communities. Many native communities suffered under slavery, starting with the very earliest European settlement of these continents. Yet others were forced to perform labor or dispossessed, often directly by the US government. Democratic candidates will also have to address that. 

— @subirgrewal | Cross-posted at The Progressive Wing