Democratic Candidates Say They Support Reparations. Do They Mean It?

The 2020 presidential primary season is just beginning, but it’s clear already that the Democratic contenders are mapping a route to the White House that runs smack dab through Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) told reporters in February that she supports reparations for African Americans.

“We must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences including undermining the ability of Black families to build wealth in America for generations,” said Warren, who is white, in a press statement. Citing legislation she has introduced in Congress to help racial minorities buy a home, she continued, “Black families have had a much steeper hill to climb, and we need systemic, structural changes to address that.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris has championed reparations, as have the writer Marianne Williamson and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.

“It is interesting to me that under our Constitution and otherwise, that we compensate people if we take their property,” Castro told MSNBC recently. “Shouldn’t we compensate people if they were property sanctioned by the state?”

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has touted his plan to provide newborns with annuities or “baby bonds” as a form of reparations. And while initially reluctant to embrace the idea, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders this month said he endorsed a bill to study reparations. Speaking at a National Action Network convention in New York — a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton — Sanders, the presumptive frontrunner among declared candidates, said that if elected president, he would sign a bill introduced in the House to create a commission to study reparations. Harris and two other Democratic candidates attending the event — former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — also voiced support for the bill.

It’s been more than a generation since a presidential candidate named William Jefferson Clinton sought to distance the Democratic Party from its most loyal constituents, African Americans, with a public rebuke of the hip-hop artist Sista Souljah. It’s been more than 30 years since Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign championed both universal and race-specific policies to curb poverty. And it’s been more than a half-century since a leading white contender for the party’s presidential nomination, Robert F. Kennedy, aggressively courted the Black vote.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cashiered Vice President Henry Wallace also campaigned for African American support in his unsuccessful 1948 bid for the White House, as the nominee of the breakaway Progressive Party. In modern electoral history, never have so many candidates for the presidency publicly embraced a pro-Black agenda as progressive as the one the Democrats are fielding today. Even former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not yet announced his candidacy, has tackled the issue of racial inequality.

“The bottom line is we have a lot to root out, but most of all the systematic racism that most of us whites don’t like to acknowledge even exists,” Biden, who authored the draconian Omnibus Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that disproportionately harmed Black communities, said to a heavily Black audience assembled at a Washington, D.C., prayer breakfast on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. “We don’t even consciously acknowledge it. But it’s been built into every aspect of our system.”

Black, it would appear, is the new Black in American electoral politics.

You needn’t be a Republican to view the Democrats’ posturing as cynical but openly courting the Black voter also serves as a tacit acknowledgement that many Black voters sat out the 2016 election, having weighed Trump’s brutish, racist rhetoric against the Clintons’ 30-year record of betrayal of the Black community.

African American turnout in the 2016 presidential election fell from a record-high 66.6 percent in 2012 to 59.6 percent, the first such decline in 20 years, when Bill Clinton ran for re-election.

Turnout was especially low in the west in the “blue wall” of Rust-Belt states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania — won by Obama in 2012 and Florida, which Hillary Clinton lost by roughly 120,000 votes, or roughly the drop in Black voter turnout between 2012 and 2016. Similarly, about 50,000 fewer voters in Detroit cast a ballot in 2016 than in 2012, accounting for Trump’s entire margin of victory in Michigan. And the drop-off in Milwaukee was roughly 27,000 votes, enabling Trump to win the state of Wisconsin even though he won no more votes than did the GOP’s 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who lost Wisconsin. “I felt cornered,” 25-year old African American Milwaukee fry cook Ian Pfeiffer told a New York Times reporter days after the 2016 election, explaining his abstention. “We were stuck between Trump and Hillary. They really left us with no choice.”

That African American political concerns have largely disappeared from presidential campaigns reflects the Democratic Party leadership’s unimaginative response to the defection of blue-collar whites to the GOP in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 campaigns. According to The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics by Columbia University Professor of Political Science Fredrick C. Harris, Rev. Jesse Jackson’s early surge in the 1988 primary season prompted a “Stop Jesse” campaign from white party leaders, which subsequently resulted in the conservative Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Helmed by two white Southerners, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the group shunned Jackson’s interracial populism to instead reassure white voters that Black interests were not a policymaking priority for the party, while simultaneously strengthening the Democrats’ ties to Wall Street donors.

Ironically, Robert Kennedy had anticipated the country’s political shift in his 1968 presidential campaign and had formulated an electoral strategy that was diametrically opposed to the divide-and-conquer strategies deployed by Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan’s “small government” crusade and the DLC. “We have to write off unions and the South now, and replace them with Negroes, blue-collar whites and the kids,” Kennedy said to advisers shortly before his assassination, differentiating between conservative labor leaders and their more progressive rank-and-file members.

Kennedy’s vision for the party was certainly more grounded in demographic and voting trends than the Clintons’ polarizing realpolitik. Eight in 10 African Americans identify with the Democratic Party, and, historically, presidential elections have typically split the white electorate in half, leaving Blacks as the main tie-breaking vote.

In 1879, John Oliver, a prominent Black labor leader in Virginia, reminded Black voters that they represented fully a third of the state’s electorate: “Whatever party wants our votes must consider [our demands].” In 2015, Bernardine Dohrn, the former leader of both Students for a Democratic Society and the more radical Weather Underground, told me in an interview that she spent her first year as national president for Students for a Democratic Society traveling the country and instructing chapter leaders to “go talk to the Black Student Union and find out what’s on their minds.”

Hillary Clinton did almost the exact opposite in her disastrous 2016 presidential campaign, failing to make a single visit to Wisconsin. Without explicitly mentioning Black voters, Sanders said as much in a recent interview: “In some ways, she didn’t reach out to working-class people in the way I think she should’ve…. There were states where she did not campaign as vigorously as I think she should’ve, in Wisconsin and Michigan, and maybe some other states….”

Half of Milwaukee’s 2016 decline in voter turnout occurred in the city’s five poorest wards, according to The New York Times. The largest drop off, according to the newspaper, was in the 15th district, a strip of “fading wooden homes, sandwich shops and fast-food restaurants,” where eight of every 10 residents are African American. The neighborhoods in the 15th district also have one of the highest per capita rates of incarceration in the nation due to the 1994 Omnibus Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed by President Bill Clinton. “I don’t feel bad,” a Black barber named Cedric Fleming told the Times, explaining his decision to sit out the 2016 election. “Milwaukee is tired. Both were terrible. [The Democrats] never do anything for us.”

Onyewonso Bin-Wahad, an Afro-Honduran organizer with the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, said in an interview that she thought some Democratic candidates’ recent support of reparations was a cynical attempt to outflank Sanders, who has consistently opposed a monetary government benefit for the descendants of enslaved people. “I think it’s an attempt, especially by Booker and Harris, to appear to be further to the left of Bernie Sanders than they actually are.” She noted that none of the candidates who champion reparations are “connected to grassroots campaigns to promote reparations” by her organization and others.

Whether they actually intend to put these policies into practice is an open question. Still, Democrats with an eye on the White House seem intent on reaching out to African American voters with renewed vigor. Senator Warren was one of the first politicians to voice her support for the Black Lives Matter movement and in a commencement speech in December at historically Black Morgan State University in Baltimore, the Massachusetts Democrat acknowledged publicly what has been taboo in Democratic presidential politics for more than a generation:

I’m not a person of color. And I haven’t lived your life or experienced anything like the subtle prejudice, or more overt harm, that you may have experienced just because of the color of your skin. Rules matter, and our government — not just individuals within the government, but the government itself — has systematically discriminated against Black people in this country. Race matters and we need to say so.”