The issue of reparations is being discussed among Democratic 2020 presidential candidates. Of all the candidates, Bernie Sanders has been singled out; he is being heavily criticized because he doesn’t support reparations. Is that fair? On some level, it isn’t.
That said, I wanted to make this post to express my views on the subject (and what I think about Sanders’ stance on it, among others). This post might be a little sloppy, but that’s because I am still learning about this topic and figuring out to express my views on the topic. That said, I know that we must have a general understanding of what is being asked and how the issue originated.
When Did the Talk of Reparations Begin?
Talk of reparations for black people may have begun before Reconstruction, but the aftermath of the Civil War amplified the topic. (I addressed this in my Famous Sayings Post entitled Forty Acres and a Mule, so that post was a setup for this one.) During the Reconstruction Period, Radical Republicans in Congress, including Charles Sumner and
Thaddeus Stevens, pushed for land redistribution “to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power.”
At first, some of these lawmakers’ desires were met as some abandoned lands along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts were given to former slaves. However, once Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency, those lands were stripped away and given back to the former slaveholders, who were also paid cash settlements. The former slaves were often forced to live as sharecroppers, which locked them into poverty.
What Does Reparations Entail?
There is no consensus as to what reparations entail, but a basic principle behind reparations would involve the federal government of the United States, state governments, and pertinent businesses acknowledging the harm they did African slaves and their descendants.
Ultimately, those who support reparations recognize that cash payments are in order to mark this recognition. Cash payments are needed to give black folks more economic power and autonomy. Cash payments are also needed to help black folks build generational wealth.
Of course, money alone will not fix everything. There must be race-based structural changes to help black Americans get equal footing with white individuals and white families. This includes infrastructure improvements, programs to combat redlining, ending discriminatory banking practices, and a type of affirmative action that improves the school systems in predominantly black neighborhoods.
However, one mitigating factor here is the cost. If both cash payments and programs were to be part of a reparations package, it could cost trillions of dollars. Cash payments might make up the bulk of that cost.
Now, before we can fully determine what will suffice or come up with a price tag, we will need to undertake a nationwide study that looks at the history of anti-black racism in the United States. The study will look at the period starting with chattel slavery (which presumably began in 1619, when the first black-skinned peoples were seen in the Virginia Colony). There was a bill (H.R. 40) that former Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced every session of Congress from 1989 to 2017 that proposed to do just that, but it wasn’t picked up again.
Additionally, many people who support reparations think that the focus should be on a subgroup of black Americans: those whose lineage could be traced to Africans who were forced into chattel slavery in the United States. Thus, we might also have to differentiate between those who are American descendants of slaves (ADOS) and those who aren’t.
What Is the ADOS Movement All About?
The ADOS movement started with two people, Yvette Carnell (a historian who runs the Breaking Brown YouTube channel and website) and Antonio Moore (an attorney who runs the Tonetalks YouTube Channel). The two came up with the phrase American Descendants of Slaves because they felt that the race-based term “Black” was no longer adequate to describe a subsection of the American population.
Black peoples are more diverse, particularly in the United States. Even among the entire African-American/Black community in the United States, there are differences in perception and treatment. Those who descended from slaves will likely have a generational history of poverty and discrimination whereas someone like Barack Obama (whose mother was white and whose father was Kenyan) would not. When put that way, I can see where Carnell and Moore are coming from.
What Carnell and More Want to Achieve
Overall, Carnell and Moore want to use the ADOS movement to do the following:
- “[S]hift the dialogue around the identity of what it is to be African American.” In that sense, the movement was started to recognize a key subgroup of Black Americans, those who descended from slaves brought to the United States and its colonies from 1619 until the official end of slavery.
- Demand “reparative justice in making the group whole.”
- Create a New Deal for Black America in order to close the wealth gap.
What Carnell and Moore Want Are Asking For
Their demands include:
- Creating a new designation for ADOS on the Census, separate from Black immigrants. ADOS data should also be used to track employment data for businesses that contract with federal and state governments.
- Rebooting affirmative action to only apply to ADOS.
- Reinstituting the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
- Designating 15% of the Small Business Administration’s loans to ADOS-owned businesses.
- A multi-billion-dollar infrastructure plan for ADOS communities.
- Compensating residents of majority ADOS communities who were harmed by environmental neglect by federal, state, and local governments.
- A prison reform program. Such a program will include a thorough review of prison statistics to track the ADOS prison population and the types of punishments ADOS prisoners received compared to the rest of the population. There must also be a greater investment in counseling, job training, and rehabilitation.
- A three-fold increase in the federal allotment to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).
- Limiting the yearly number of H1-B Visa workers permits for tech companies.
- Auditing the banks to track discriminatory lending practices. Banks will also be required to lend more to ADOS businesses.
- Earmarking federal advertising funds for Black media.
- Forgiving ADOS college debt.
- A health care credit for ADOS.
- Passing H.R. 40.
Do I Support Reparations?
I generally agree that some form of reparations should be given by the United States to American descendants of slaves. It’s not because I might stand to benefit from such a program, but I do feel that it is an issue of morality. The United States owes a debt to many of its citizens, but this country was built upon slavery and white supremacy, two things that haven’t been eradicated.
One aspect of this reparations talk I am most in favor of isn’t just about the payment, but about the study into the history of American descendants of slaves (of course). That history will include some of the things I have already discussed on this blog, like Black Wall Street, but most people are unaware of stories like that. And there are modern-day abuses, like predatory lending practices, that deserve a closer look and remedies that might include restitution.
It will not be easy to look at one of the most hidden aspects of American history, but it’s important that we do in order to understand how racial relations go to this point and how economic terrorism has affected everyone involved. Those lessons should be added to history books so that children will have a full understanding of Black history.
What Do I Think of Bernie Sanders’ Stance on Reparations?
In short, I’m annoyed by his position on reparations. He has been asked about this topic more than once, and he has given a similar answer each time. Basically, he feels that cash payments will not help African-Americans, but he thinks that there are things he can do for Americans at large that will work themselves towards poor Black Americans.
Overall, I like Bernie Sanders. He is the most popular politician in the United States for a reason. He is what many international observers would call a moderate because he has wide appeal, even outside of the Democratic Party. And many of his reforms, including a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All have engaged voters and increased in support over the past 3-4 years.
That said, his position on reparations annoys me because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates once said before, it speaks of cowardice and a lack of imagination. I know that saying this might piss off some Sanders supporters, but it’s how I feel. Another reason Sanders gives for not pushing for reparations — it would never pass in a Republican Congress — also applies to many, if not all his reforms.
Now, I know that some might point out that Medicare for All and other positions Sanders has (which I support) have a greater range of support among Americans than reparations does. That much is true, given that reparations poll quite low among white Americans. Still, I think it is important for those who support reparations to make their case and find allies to help them build more support for the cause.
How Do I Feel About This Discussion?
I am bothered by multiple sides in this discussion, but I will focus on the Left for the purposes of this post.
Generally, there are two main factions here: One side supports reparations wholeheartedly and the other thinks that reparations will not help black folks (and that the issue is “too divisive”). Both sides have problems.
Problems on the Pro-Reparations Side
On the pro-reparations side, there are a lot of combative people. While they will need to be tough and fierce in the debate, I think that some folks, including Yvette Carnell, are going after certain people who could be their allies.1 Lefties are more likely to take up the cause of reparations, but Carnell has attacked politicians like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because they don’t have reparations in their platforms.2
Another problem I have with this side is how some tend to ignore the issue of class in this debate. Some proponents of reparations reject socialism and social democracy and opt to focus more on the social aspects of racism. As Cedric Johnson has pointed out, not all black folks in America have suffered on the same level due to racism and there have long been class divisions among black folks for decades. Any serious discussion of reparations MUST include a discussion about class because class affects people regardless of race.
Additionally, there is a certain type of tribalism within the #ADOS movement. Black folks in America are a minority, and by categorizing people as American Descendants of slaves and moving away from Pan-Africanism, proponents of the #ADOS movement are shrinking their coalition.
Problems on the Anti-Reparations Side
On the anti-reparations side, there are people like Sanders and Johnson who have been quite dismissive to the idea and Johnson is quite dismissive to those who support reparations. Johnson, in a long open letter to Coates, called the discussion of reparations a “parlor debate” and a “non-starter.” To make matters worse, Johnson dismissed H.R. 40 offhand. He never explained why we could not have a conversation about race or looking into the history of black exploitation.3
I have seen similar approaches to this issue from Sanders supporters. In general, they oppose making reparations an election-year issue because they feel that it’s “too divisive” and that criticizing Sanders for it will tank his candidacy.
To Be Fair …
There is a cynical element to the type of criticism Sanders is receiving. While a few candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have indicated that they support reparations, Pete Buttigieg gave a similar answer to the one Sanders gave yet didn’t receive any flack for it.4 There are a lot of centrist Democrats who don’t want Sanders to be the nominee in 2020, so they have been pushing the narrative that he has a “black people problem” and the discussion of reparations will only help their cause.
That Said …
Sanders needs to make the effort to listen to those who support reparations and come to an understanding with them because, truth be told, their interests overlap.
That’s right, I don’t believe that reparations conflicts with a democratic socialist agenda. Even though a lot of the reparations talk hinges on helping black folks in a capitalistic society, much of what people like Carnell and Moore are asking for is socialistic, and things like infrastructure improvements are part of Sanders’ agenda. Thus, it would behoove both sides to get together and work on the things where they agree.
No matter where the talk leads, there needs to be a specific focus on the aspects of black life that are affected by the various levels of government and capitalism. That’s why we need to have this discussion and do a thorough study.
I suspect that even some self-described lefties are reticent to such a study because they are afraid of what we’ll find. Not only will it tell us how bad anti-black oppression has been, but it will tell us how much we benefitted from it, how slavery connects to modern-day problems Black folks face, and the moral character of the United States. That last part scares people, but we cannot cure the disease until we fully diagnose it.
1. Yvette Carnell changed her position on this issue from what it was three years ago. In 2016, she was one of the people who criticized Ta-Nehisi Coates for his opinion pieces about Sanders. She argued that the NAACP agree with Sanders and pointed out the low support for reparations. She has since dedicated much of her work toward pushing for reparations for American Descendants of Slaves.
2. On the eve of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in 2018, Carnell devoted much of his live stream to attacking AOC. During that stream, Carnell asked where the black people were in AOC’s highly touted ad, used a right-wing talking point to suggest that AOC had grown up in affluence, and criticized the then-28-year-old for not mentioning reparations. Even some of Carnell’s callers called her out for this
3. Cedric Johnson tries to keep the focus strictly on reparations for slavery. I’d like to introduce him to the 13th Amendment. While that amendment ended chattel slavery in the United States, it traded that form of slavery for prison labor.
I’d like to remind folks how black folks are overrepresented in the prison system, not only by headcount, but by sentencing.
4. I don’t care what any of these candidates say, I don’t trust that any will push for reparations. Kamala Harris is dishonest, and Elizabeth Warren has said that she wants to pair black reparations with reparations for Native Americans. While I’m not opposed to reparations for Native Americans (I support them, in fact), we must talk about reparations for the different groups separately. Both Native Americans and ADOS will need to have studies done so that we can compare the findings and come up with appropriate remedies.
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Johnson, Cedric. “An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him.” Jacobin. 3 Feb 2016. Web. <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/ta-nehisi-coates-case-for-reparations-bernie-sanders-racism/>.
Johnson, Cedric. “Reparations Isn’t a Political Demand.” Jacobin. 7 Mar 2016. Web. <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/cedric-johnson-brian-jones-ta-nehisi-coates-reparations>.
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