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2020 Democrats Wrestle With A Big Question: What Are Reparations?

Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, seen at a South Carolina NAACP march in January, are two of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates pressed on the issue of reparations this week.
Sean Rayford
Getty Images
Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, seen at a South Carolina NAACP march in January, are two of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates pressed on the issue of reparations this week.

Several Democratic candidates have been quick to embrace reparations recently. Bernie Sanders is more cautious.

At a CNN town hall on Monday, a woman asked Sanders about his view on reparations, and at first he talked about trying to "put resources into distressed communities and improve lives for those people who have been hurt from the legacy of slavery."

Moderator Wolf Blitzer pushed him for a more direct response, noting that multiple presidential candidates have said they support reparations. Sanders answered the question with his own question — one that is now hanging over the 2020 Democratic field:

"What does that mean? What do they mean? I'm not sure that anyone's very clear," Sanders said.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris and author Marianne Williamson have all in some way said they are in favor of reparations for African-Americans — providing compensation to people hurt by discriminatory policies like slavery, Jim Crow laws and redlining.

Warren has added that Native Americans should be a part of the conversation, as well.

But while multiple candidates have been quick to say that they support the policy, they now face both the difficult question of what that kind of policy should look like, and the very basic question of whether their proposed plans even meet the definition of "reparations."

"Baby bonds" and tax credits as reparations

Williamson has the most straightforward approach, saying she'd allocate up to $500 billion to redress a range of discriminatory policies.

"If you kick somebody to the ground, you owe it to them to do more than stop kicking," she told New York radio station Hot 97 earlier this month. "You owe it to them to say, 'Here: Let me help you get back up.'"

Other candidates are touting their existing safety net programs as part of the reparations debate.

Booker, for example, is promoting his "baby bonds" plan, which would put money into savings accounts for all American kids. However, far more money would go to children in poverty — who are disproportionately black — than to middle-class kids.

"It's certainly accurate to see to see the baby bonds legislation as a form of reparations through that lens," said Booker spokesman Michael Tyler.

Similarly, when a journalist from the website The Grio asked Harris about her support for reparations, she promoted her "LIFT Act," a tax credit plan that would disproportionately help poorer families.

"We have to recognize that everybody did not start out on equal footing in this country. And in particular black people have not," she said. "And so we have got to recognize that and do something about that and give folks a lift up."

Booker and Harris' policies get at the large racial economic divides at the heart of the reparations debate. Advocates for reparations often point to America's massive racial wealth gap. According to the Federal Reserve, the median white family had a net worth of $171,000 as of 2016. The median black family had around $17,000 — one-tenth as much.

But while Booker and Harris' plans would likely help black families more than white, neither of their programs are race-based.

That muddies the reparations debate, said Darrick Hamilton, executive director of The Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

"Something that is economically inclusive but has a racial bent to it — those may or may not be good policies, but let's be clear: It's not reparations," he said.

This isn't about quibbling over definitions, Hamilton added. Rather, there's the possibility that calling a policy reparations when it doesn't explicitly attempt to address past wrongs, amounts to putting a band-aid on a gaping, centuries-old wound.

"That would be almost a worst-case scenario, to say we have addressed the race issue when in fact we have not done it," he said.

A reparations policy would include not only compensation, but also an acknowledgement of specific wrongs and reconciliation, according to Hamilton.

Reparations vs. "race-conscious" policy

While most candidates' policies may not meet those criteria, many are promoting economic plans that are being sold as "race-conscious."

For example, Warren's plan for housing aid — particularly to communities with a history of racial discrimination — could help shrink the racial wealth gap. But her campaign stresses that she does not consider that proposal reparations.

Similarly, Sanders says that his policies to tackle inequality will shrink the racial economic gaps in the U.S.

The candidates' focus on shrinking racial gaps is a sign of a shifting conversation about race.

"What they're all recognizing is that these disparities are very much part of the American landscape and finding solutions to them mean addressing issues they're as broad as living in our country itself," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau.

What Americans think

There isn't a lot of polling on the topic of reparations, but the polling that does exist points to a potential dilemma for candidates.

A 2016 Marist poll found that a majority of African-Americans support the policy. Black voters are one of the most important demographics for the Democratic party.

But then, that same poll showed that only 26 percent of Americans like the idea of reparations.

This may add reparations to a list of other progressive policy ideas, like Medicare-for-all and free college, which are popular among Democratic primary voters but potentially polarizing in a general election.

Hamilton, who is in favor of reparations, believes that polling like this doesn't mean the policy will stay unpopular forever.

"Not too long ago, Medicare-for-all was an idea that was criticized at the policy level as being pie in the sky," he said.

In that sense, the 2020 Democratic race is evidence that ideas can change — sometimes unexpectedly fast.

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Corrected: February 28, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous photo caption in this story incorrectly called Bernie Sanders a Democrat. He is an independent who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.