Reparations for the descendants of American slaves has been an idea floated in various forms since the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery after the Civil War. Supporters of the idea have offered several arguments, but perhaps the easiest to visualize involves the analogy of a poker game played with a loaded deck, and what to do with the ill-gotten winnings of the crooked card players once the truth is uncovered.
Talk of reparations long existed primarily on the left-most fringes of the political spectrum, but after decades of scattered discussion, the concept has now become a unifying principle in the crowded field of candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Virtually all of the 20 presidential candidates from the Democratic Pary advocate for reparations in some form. Many have openly endorsed the idea, and none have renounced it. The question among those looking to unseat President Trump is not whether reparations are appropriate, but in what form they should become policy.
Reparations would likely involve payments to minority communities and individuals who can prove they are the descendants of slaves. One can only imagine a mirror-image of the so-called “one-drop” rule, which was historically employed to label and discriminate against anyone with even a drop of black blood, and which would now presumably be used for the opposite purpose: to qualify for reparation payments.
Presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has sponsored a bill that would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and continuing discrimination against black Americans and make recommendations on reparation proposals for the progeny of slaves. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who dismissed the idea as divisive in 2016, now supports that bill. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said, “We have to invest in those communities that have been so hurt by racism,” but provided no further details. So while these candidates and the others in this jam-packed field have universally supported the concept, nothing beyond the establishment of a commission to study them has yet been proposed or enacted.
The question arising from this call to action is whether reparations are something we already implemented — almost 50 years ago — when affirmative action programs were written into law.
There are no hard numbers to quantify the results of opportunities granted to minorities and women through affirmative action. But we all know how it took hold in the 1970s and has been steadily cemented into the fabric of American life in the nearly five decades since. And we certainly know that this preferential treatment of minorities (though women are actually a majority) in an attempt to reverse historical discrimination did result in millions of such opportunities, as was the intent of these programs.
Whether affirmative action is justified preferential treatment or just a different form of discrimination than the one it seeks to reverse is a question still vigorously debated almost half a century after its inception. We have not settled the issue of whether affirmative action constitutes payment in full for any debt that may be owed by society.
Interestingly, the nation’s first black president did not support reparations, believing it would be a convenient way to simply buy off those demanding social justice. Barack Obama stated:
“I fear reparations would be used as an excuse for some to say we’ve paid our debt and to avoid the much harder work of enforcing anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing, lifting people out of poverty, improving public education, and rehabilitating young men coming out of prison.”
Reparations are a modern concept and rare in history. Historically, the term “reparations” dealt primarily with the indemnification of states ravaged by war, such as those required of the Germans after World War I.
In the aftermath of World War II, however, the term began to acquire a broader meaning, extending beyond wartime to the domestic actions of a state.
There are two major historical instances of reparations. The most significant was Germany’s payment to Holocaust survivors of the equivalent of almost nine billion in today’s dollars. The United States also offered a modest $20,000 to each of the more than 80,000 Japanese-Americans detained in internment camps during World War II.
This seemingly sudden and widespread support among leading Democrats for reparations may be the culmination of a notion that has slowly crept into the political conversation since 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson vowed to rectify the economic disadvantage blacks faced when he declared in a speech considered a harbinger of affirmative action: “Freedom is not enough. … It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity.” Since that time, the trickle of interest in reparations, beyond affirmative action, has become a wave in the Democratic Party. And you can well expect to hear much discussion about it in the upcoming presidential debates.
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