Should the U.S. give reparations for slavery?

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Democrats vying to be the party’s nominee for president in 2020 are in the spotlight for their stances on reparations — the idea that African-Americans should receive financial compensation for the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era.

Why it’s in the news: Last month at a CNN town hall, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked about reparations and responded: “What does that mean? What do they mean? I’m not sure anyone’s very clear.” Sanders elaborated in a March 4 radio interview — when asked if he would support “free cash payouts” to African-Americans, he said: “No. Do you mean a check to every African-American? Well, then, that means a check to every Native American that were wiped out when the settlers came. I think the way we go forward is to build America together.”

Why it’s sparking debate: The reparations debate is emerging as a key election issue. African-American voters — a key constituency for the Democrats — support reparations, but there are different interpretations about how they would be enacted.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have historically opposed reparations. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she supports a bill establishing a commission to study and consider the issue.

A handful of candidates — Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro — have expressed some form of support for reparations. Sen. Cory Booker is touting a “baby bonds” plan to close the racial wealth gap. Marianne Williamson, a self-help author and spiritual adviser, wants to set aside $100 billion for a reparations program.

What’s next: As the party shifts more to the left, the candidates’ stance on reparations could be seen as a litmus test for their progressive credentials. The issue looks set to hang over the Democratic field and could entrench divisions between the party’s progressive wing and its moderates.

While polls in recent years have shown the issue to be popular with black voters, support of reparations is less popular with Americans overall — particularly with white voters.

And that leaves candidates trying to sort out whether to campaign on the issue.


Reparations are needed to right the wrongs of slavery.

“We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative, and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices. The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.” — David Brooks, New York Times

“Without reparations in the form of money or assets, how can we ensure that every Black American is able to benefit? Not all Black Americans need social programs, but all Black Americans are entitled to reparations, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in heartbreaking detail five years ago. The truth is that no form of reparations will fully right the wrongs of slavery. But that’s not the point. The point is to acknowledge a crime against humanity and to make one step toward redress. Our country needs better social programs, but we also need true reparations. It’s revolutionary to have so many candidates discussing this controversial topic. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t push them to have these conversations more effectively.” — Nylah Burton, Bustle

Reparations would widen racial divisions in America.

“Conservatives can sometimes be heard tepidly endorsing reparations in just this sense: a one-time payment, and then nothing more owed — no affirmative action, no ‘national conversation on race,’ nothing. That is the only conception of reparations that could possibly be politically viable. It would also be utterly toxic, ultimately widening divisions that we’re trying to shrink. And the benefit is likely to be smaller than the heroic price tag suggests; the economic evidence from lotteries suggests that one-time capital transfers do very little to improve the long-term welfare of recipients.” — Megan McArdle, Washington Post

“The moral case for reparations may be strong, but the political and cultural consequences of enacting the policy is likely to be extremely high. Far from serving as a moment of moral reckoning and healing for the country, as its advocates contend, it would inspire a severe backlash that would inflame tensions on both sides of the color line — and set the stage for future calls from other groups for acts of public restitution for past injustices. It’s a recipe for greatly intensified civic anger and resentment.” — Damon Linker, The Week

Supporting reparations is grandstanding.

“Slavery, and the systematic subjugation of African Americans that followed it officially until the day before yesterday, was evil. Its legacy is evil. Its surviving remnants are evil. It is not an evil that is unique in the world … but it is an evil that is unique in the context of the United States of America. Its consequences remain very much with us, as anyone with eyes to see can discern for himself. Reparations are the wrong way to mitigate that evil. One reason for that is that reparations proposals are not intended to mitigate that evil. They are intended to make Elizabeth Warren, “professor of color,” president of the United States. And, if not Warren, then Senator Harris, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, or some other tedious mediocrity.” — Kevin D. Williamson, National Review

“What will resolve the racial divisions in this country is not a cash transfer but – and you liberals are going to hate this manifestly true statement of fact — a return to the Judeo-Christian values and principles of our Constitution that recognize the worth and dignity of each individual based upon his or her character, as well as a total repudiation of the racial hucksterism that is destroying our culture. Until we reject the ethnic scammers and professional bigots who seek to make immutable characteristics like race, ethnicity, religion, and gender what defines an individual, our culture and politics will be a poisonous cesspool. It’s those creeps who owe all of us reparations — but I don’t want their money. I just want them to stop destroying my country.” — Kurt Schlichter, Townhall

The debate could tear Democrats apart.

“When an issue suddenly gains traction as important to a left constituency, there’s enormous pressure on the Democratic candidates to position themselves as more woke than their rivals. But faux wokeness can backfire. Better to be all in than halfway. The second is that when an issue like this is suddenly injected into the campaign policy conversation, it incentivizes the political press to scour the candidates’ records. And the longer the record one has, the more perilous scouring can be. … Finally, the reparations debate has exposed the crucial divide among Democrats these days, which is between those who emphasize class and those who emphasize race and identity.” — Ryan Lizza, Esquire

“Flippant talk about reparations illustrates a worsening pattern of behavior among congressional Democrats, including presidential candidates. … A quarter-baked idea (reparations, a Green New Deal, Medicare for All) is floated. There is a stampede to endorse it before thinking about the idea’s dependence on enormous revenues of unknown origin and/or unavailable technologies. Then, when details, or the lack thereof, reveal the idea’s wild impracticality, the stampeders breezily say: Nevertheless, the idea is virtuous because it is “aspirational.” Which means that the Democratic party is again assisting, as in 2016, Donald Trump’s electoral aspirations. — George Will, National Review

Can reparations even be calculated?

“Reparations owed to African-Americans in terms of dollars are insurmountable and nearly impossible for America to afford. No amount of money can repair the psychological damage African-Americans have experienced for centuries, and no amount of money can address the systemic racism that has been carried over from slavery. The United States would have to attempt to calculate the total cost to compensate for damages done to generations of an entire race of people to arrive at a dollar amount for reparations. A realistic expectation is not to offer monetary compensation but to educate the youth and future generations of all American citizens in a way that would reverse the effects of slavery on everyone and change every citizen’s perception of African-Americans.” — Benny Williams, Ebony