(Bloomberg) -- Democrats in Congress and running for the White House are taking a fresh look at reparations for the descendants of slaves, as the party wrestles with addressing inequality and confronting racial tension and violence they say are being stoked by President Donald Trump.
Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee has given new life to an idea first raised in the aftermath of the Civil War and periodically revived since then. It’s pushed into the Democratic presidential contest as a marker for candidates seeking to show their commitment to addressing issues of race and the economic disparity between whites and blacks.
In the Senate, Cory Booker of New Jersey has introduced companion legislation to Jackson Lee’s measure that would form a commission to study proposals for reparations. All six of the other senators in the Democratic presidential race, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, have signed on as co-sponsors.
Another presidential hopeful, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, said at the Democratic debate in Detroit in July that, if elected, he would sign Jackson Lee’s legislation if it passed Congress “so that we can have the national conversation we’ve waited too long in this country to have.”
A commission to study compensating African-Americans for slavery would be an historic step, although Congress is unlikely to pass Jackson Lee’s legislation while Republicans control the Senate. And while studying reparations is a far step from enacting them, the debate is pushing the Democratic candidates to articulate how they would address the wealth gap between white and black families that continues to widen.
“America has to come to grips with something that is continuously raising its head again,” Jackson Lee said in an interview in July.
Race has jumped to the forefront of the 2020 campaign as Democrats denounce Trump’s rhetoric, accusing him of using racist language that’s encouraged extremists, like the gunman who killed 22 people in a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.
“This president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation,” Joe Biden, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential contest, said at a campaign stop this week in Iowa, days after the shooting in Texas and another in Dayton, Ohio.
Still, the support for a study of reparations rather than an actual program for payments is a sign of the cautious approach the candidates are taking toward the idea, which surveys have shown has little support among voters. Instead, they’re emphasizing broader economic policies intended to address income inequality.
Booker’s campaign proposed “Baby Bonds” which could give all U.S. children a savings account at birth, with as much as $2,000 added each year for children from low-income families to access at age 18. Harris offered an economic plan called “The Lift Act” to give a tax credit to all families who make less than $100,000 a year.
Warren and Sanders both suggested education policies aimed at closing racial achievement gaps. Warren’s plan includes universal tuition free college and an increase in Pell Grants. She would also put $50 billion into historically black colleges and universities and cancel 95% of student-loan debt in an effort to close the wealth gap.
Schools and Wealth
Sanders’s “Thurgood Marshall Plan,” named for the first African-American Supreme Court justice, focuses on combating school segregation and increasing funding for public schools.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg proposed the Douglass Plan, named for 19th century author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which aims to help black families build wealth by supporting home ownership, health care and entrepreneurship, and would overhaul the criminal justice system. His campaign describes the policy as “a complement to any potential reparations proposals.”
Biden said he supports a commission to study reparations, but hasn’t endorsed a specific bill so far. His campaign has emphasized education reforms including investing in schools serving low-income areas, as well as policies to reduce incarceration. His proposal would change sentencing for drug offenses and establish social programs to reduce crime.
Only Marianne Williamson, a self-help author and outlier in the crowded Democratic field, fully endorsed cash reparations, which she estimated to cost as much as $500 billion.
History of Reparations
Trump regularly points to job gains for minorities and the low African-American unemployment rate achieved during his administration to deflect criticism for his comments targeting immigrants and other people of color, including members of Congress.
Republicans have largely dismissed the idea that descendants of slaves should be compensated as a way to address enduring wealth disparities. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he doesn’t believe Americans today should pay for the nation’s “original sin” that happened “150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible.”
America did attempt reparations for former slaves after the Civil War. In 1865, Union General William Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which dictated that land in Georgia and South Carolina be reserved for newly freed slaves. The slaves were offered 40 acres of land and a mule, a calculation Williamson cited on the debate stage to calculate how much would be owed today. While 40,000 former slaves ended up living on this land, President Andrew Johnson reversed those orders.
Making the Case
The argument for reparations began in Congress in 1989 when Representative John Conyers of Michigan introduced the original bill to establish a commission to study reparations.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates sparked the conversation again in a 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations.” He argued that the descendants of slaves are owed reparations for the role their ancestors played in building the nation and the economy. Coates testified during the House Judiciary Committee’s June 19 hearing on Jackson Lee’s bill, H.R. 40.
The hearing was timed to coincide with Juneteenth, marked by many African Americans as the anniversary of their emancipation from slavery in Texas on that day in 1865.
Built the Nation
Also at the hearing, House Majority leader Steny Hoyer said he expects the committee to advance Jackson Lee’s bill, with a possible floor vote. Jackson Lee said this moment, in which Trump’s controversies follow the two terms of the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, is the perfect time to study reparations.
“Cotton was king, people were in bondage, they were never paid, they helped the build this nation, they built the United States Capitol that we’re sitting in, they built the White House that we love and have affection for, they served in all the wars starting with the revolutionary war,” Jackson-Lee said.
“Once you have all that understanding, I don’t think anyone would be angry or mad about the fact that we would pass H.R. 40.”
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