Reparations Are a Financial Quandary. For Democrats, They’re a Political One, Too.

How should Americans pay for the legacy of slavery and a century of Jim Crow segregation?

For decades, this question was largely academic. Then in 2020, it was seized upon by Democrats and activists during the racial reexamination following the killing of George Floyd, and several cities and states established commissions to study reparations for black Americans.

Now, as those commissions announce their recommendations, the political climate is very different from three years ago. A widespread “anti-vaccine” movement on the right has targeted programs for social and racial justice, and the statistics of hard cash being proposed as compensation are causing sticker shock. Oh California Task Force recently recommended more than $500 billion in reparations to black residents. San Francisco Considering $100 billion in compensation. And said Representative Cory Bush of Missouri $14 trillion was the real national cost.

Republicans have argued on the data that the left’s quest for social justice has stalled. But for Democrats, the re-emergence of a long-dormant issue is a deeper set of problems on the horizon.

Democratic officials had for years nodded in approval at the idea of ​​reparations as a distant ideal for closing the racial wealth gap, a position that appealed to many black voters. Which is the most loyal constituency of the party. But headline-grabbing recommendations from lawmakers and local and state task forces are forcing Democratic leaders to grapple with financial and political implications that many would have liked.

Few Democrats in power take seriously the prospect of spending billions of dollars to redistribute wealth to the descendants of slaves. But that reality is making party leaders desperate to retain the loyalty of black voters by finding ways to say no or say no or change the subject altogether pending some dramatic improvement in the economy. Are anxious for.

California Task Force The restitution owed to elderly black residents was set at $1.2 million each, to compensate for the state’s long history of residential discrimination, mass incarceration, unequal health care and other harms outlined in his report. . But Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who signed the law creating the task force, dodged the cost issue, declaring that the reimbursements “far outweigh the cash payments.”

Board of Supervisors in San Francisco Some have expressed support for setting aside $5 million in restitution for residents, but Mayor London Brad, a Democrat who is black, has not committed to the payments.

Both President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as candidates in 2020, have endorsed the federal compensation study, but they have invested little political capital in advancing the project in the White House. Mr. Biden has spoken about the legacy of systemic racism in America, but he has not issued an executive order to create a reparations study commission, as some have urged.

“As long as people are talking about it, it’s positive for Democrats,” said David Townsend, a Sacramento-based consultant to many moderate Democrats in the California Legislature. “The problems don’t start until you start writing checks.”

The issue presents a dilemma that quietly divides the Democratic voter base. Black voters at the polls Supports mass compensation.but other groups that Democrats can’t afford to push into the 2024 presidential race largely oppose them, including white, Asian and Hispanic voters.

According to one Survey of American Adults According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, fewer than one in three Americans agree that the descendants of slaves should be compensated in some way, such as land or money. 77 percent of black adults supported reparations, but only 18 percent of white adults did. Among Hispanics, support was 39 percent, and among Asians, 33 percent. About half of Democrats say the descendants of enslaved people should be compensated, while only 8 percent of Republicans agree.

A small group of black activists has taken the lead. Pressure for compensation For years, working on a large scale in the academy, Think tanks and non-profit groups. But in the months since Mr. Floyd’s murder, a broader segment of Americans, including politicians and religious leaders, have become more vocal in their calls for direct reparations.

Rev. Al Sharpton was among those who helped put the issue of compensation on the Democratic political agenda during the party’s 2020 primaries.

In an interview, Mr. Sharpton said that even if there had never been a payoff in hard cash, putting a price tag on injustice was an act that forced a review of history because Republicans largely denied it. Let’s face it, the racism of the past has left an uneven playing field today. . If outrageous dollar amounts force Americans to consider the scope of the nation’s moral responsibility to black people, he suggested, it should more than anything else about other ways to pay that debt. A productive conversation can ensue.

“I think once we get mainstream America to say — whether they say it reluctantly, belatedly or whatever — ‘Yes, we have to,'” Mr. Sharpton said. ‘ Then you can have a better discussion about how we pay,” Mr Sharpton said. “I don’t think we’ve successfully gotten mainstream America to come to the question, ‘Are we in debt?'”

Critics of reparations argue that America has already redressed historical injustices by passing landmark civil rights and voting rights laws in the 1960s and by establishing a social safety net, including welfare programs and college admissions. And jobs include affirmative action, to lift people out of poverty. . They say it is morally wrong to force Americans whose ancestors had no role in slavery or Jim Crow to pay for the past, and they have raised the possibility of filing legal challenges. Supreme Court. A ban is expected Race-conscious college admissions in a decision this spring.

The legal argument of conservative critics of reparations is that government payments based on race violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. In California, the task force decided that eligibility should be tied directly to ancestry, not just race, specifying that descendants of enslaved African Americans or “residents of the United States before the end of the 19th century.” must be a descendant of a free black person. Receive compensation. Some legal experts have said that using direct ancestry has a better chance of withstanding court challenges.

Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate and who announced Monday that he would run for president, has rejected the idea of ​​reparations and is projecting a message in early GOP nomination states that America is a It is a post-racial society.

“I am living proof that America is the land of opportunity, not the land of oppression,” Mr. Scott said in his campaign announcement in his hometown of North Charleston, S.C.

The California Reparations Task Force’s proposals will be sent to lawmakers in Sacramento, where they face high political and economic hurdles to become law, even in a state dominated by Democrats. For one thing, the state — whose tax structure leaves it open. Wide swings in income. faces a projected budget deficit of more than $31 billion from one year to the next. No hearings on the proposed rules will be held until next year.

Although the task force weighed different methods for distributing compensation, such as tuition or housing grants, it settled on direct payments to address economic inequality. According to Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louisthe typical black family in America is worth $23,000, compared to $184,000 for white families.

“The deficits keep coming,” said the Rev. Amos C. Brown, a member of the task force who was born in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era. “As a state, we need a moral compass that this brutal system of slavery was wrong, and that its legacy was accepted here in California.”

Compensation politics are complicated even in liberal California. More than 40 percent of the state’s population is Latino, a group that is faced historical discrimination. Asians make up 15 percent, including descendants of oppressed Chinese immigrant railroad workers. The state has more than 100 federally recognized Native American tribes, many of which were exterminated by white settlers over the centuries. Only 6.5 percent of the state’s population is black.

Democrats in Congress have been introducing a bill to create a commission to study reparations since 1989, HR 40, named for the failed Civil War-era promise of “40 acres and a mule” to free slaves. has been kept In 2021, the bill passed the House Judiciary Committee for the first time, but did not receive a floor vote.

In recent years, the momentum of this issue has shifted to the state and municipal levels. Evanston, Ill.Agreed to pay $25,000 to longtime black residents who suffered housing discrimination before 1970. Asheville, NC allocated $2.1 million for compensation which is a Commission Studying how to spend.

“The issue of reparations for black Americans is far from over,” said Mark Morrell, president of the National Urban League, noting that the federal government paid some form of reparations to Japanese Americans after they were incarcerated in World War II. . “This remains unfinished business. The fact that California has done something is a demonstration of the currency of the issue.

In parallel with Democrats’ reparations efforts, Republican-led state governments have pushed to outlaw the influence of critical race theory in schools, government agencies, and private companies. Critical race theory is the notion that racism is baked into American institutions and underpins the reparations argument.

In such a political and economic environment, black adults are increasingly skeptical that slavery and segregation will pay off. Six in 10 black adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they had no chance of going back in their lifetime.

This may explain why black voters have not yet expressed the same frustration with the lack of progress on reparations. As they are on other issues.such as voting rights, student loan forgiveness and police reform.

“Reparations are not the top issue of concern for African Americans across the country, and especially in any battleground states,” said Democratic pollster and strategist Cornell Belcher.

Representative Jamal Bowman of New York, a hard-left Democrat who supports the $14 trillion in reparations proposed by Ms. Bush, the Missouri congresswoman, said the issue was overrated by black voters. The reason not to is simple.

“People have lost hope,” Mr. Bowman said.

He argued that the payment of trillions would be an investment that uplifts the country’s economy across all demographics. “We haven’t done enough to engage or explain how it’s going to work,” he said. “This is a collective issue of justice for all people.”

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