Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The Democrats have some tough questions to answer on reparations for slavery. The first one is: Are they really serious about advocating reparations? Why ask this first? Because the issue which was once mostly viewed as a fringe issue touted by a motley mix of black separatists, zealots and crackpots and that respected mainstream civil rights leaders shunned, has now been slammed onto the nation’s public-policy plate by Democratic presidential contenders Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Julian Castro,
They say they back the old John Conyers bill, reintroduced by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee to set up a committee to study the feasibility of reparations payments. Meanwhile, they offer their plans which entails some form of reparations be it tax credits, more funding for education, child and health care for blacks. Also, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez says reparations is an issue worthy of discussion. And former president Obama who early on flatly opposed the idea has come around and now sees it as meriting a look.
If Democrats really embrace the idea, then the next question is: how hard are they willing to push the issue on the campaign trail? To be blunt, or they willing to talk reparations in whatever form they advocate to rural, blue collar, less educated white voters in the must win swing states? These are the voters who did much to put Trump in the Oval Office in 2016. The general consensus is that a good number of them must be torn away from Trump if a Democrat is to have any hope of ousting him in 2020.
This is dicey at best. Every poll that has been taken on reparations for slavery has repeatedly shown that the overwhelming majority of whites oppose it. They don’t want corporations, and definitely not the government, to pay up.
Reparations advocates have grabbed at every argument in the book to try and dent the wall of public resistance. They offer assurances that black millionaires, corporate presidents, superstar athletes and entertainers won’t get a dime of reparations money, that it will go to programs to aid the black poor and that it won’t guilt-trip all whites. They point out that Japanese Americans and Holocaust survivors have gotten reparations.
These arguments still fall on deaf ears. The reparations movement can’t shake the public tag that it is a movement exclusively of, by and for blacks. Polls that show that the majority of blacks back reparations simply deepen the suspicion that it’s still nothing but a cash grab by blacks for blacks for the past horror of slavery that whites who oppose reparations vehemently insist was decades ago and something they had nothing to do with.
Democratic presidential contender, Bernie Sanders, was initially worried that reparations could be a potential mine field for Democrats. He said he didn’t back reparations. But then he pivoted and jumped on the feasibility study bandwagon. This is a tepid compromise and sounds like a face-saving ploy banking that the issue will fade into obscurity when the presidential campaign season really heats up.
But what if it doesn’t? One Democratic presidential contender, Beto O’Brien, was roughly and very publicly called out on the issue at one of his campaign stops. He, like Sanders, initially frowned on the idea. However, under verbal assault by a questioner, he relented and said it was an idea that had some merit.
The GOP is already loading up its arsenal of hit attacks on the Democrats in the dozen or so states that it has targeted as the states that will determine who sits in the White House. They’ll paint the Democrats as far out loons, who want to press all kinds of wild socialist tinged ideas in health care, climate control, green energy, education, and so on. They’ll almost certainly add reparations support to the supposed screwball list of measures that a Democrat would press on the nation if Trump is booted out. The question then is if Democrats stay on record to make reparations a legitimate public policy talking point how much of a political risk is there? This means avoiding at all costs the appearance that reparations seem like a frivolous issue that is politically divisive and racially polarizing.
The reparations movement does not possess the inherent racial egalitarianism of the civil rights movement. It is ensnared by its racial isolationism. The focus is solely to compensate the descendants of black slaves and whipsaw whites for modern-day racism. Yet. Democrats still can make a compelling argument that it is in the interest of government and business to pump more funds into specific projects, such as AIDS/HIV education and prevention, remedial education, job skills and training, drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation, computer access and literacy training. Such projects would boost the black poor, not gut public revenues and, most important, not finger all whites as culpable for slavery.
Democrats have made their bed with the reparations issue. The question is when the GOP and Trump rattle that bed will they continue to lay in it? That’s the toughest question of all for Democrats.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.