Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Here’s the brutal reality about reparations. It’s been thirty-one years since former Michigan Congressman John Conyers introduced the first reparations bill in Congress. Since then, there have been countless studies, reports, news articles, endless debates, and a new House proposal for a commission to study the feasibility of reparations. During this same period payments have been made to Japanese Americans various American Indian groups, and other affected individuals and groups for past injustices. Yet not one penny has been allocated for reparations in any form for African Americans.
Why is that? The easy answer is that there have been so many proposals put forth how reparations could be made, for what and to whom, that the issue has been hopelessly entangled. There’s truth to that. But that’s too easy. Reparations is a tough sell and it has little to do with hard dollars.
The tip is the Democrats. Every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate signed onto to the House measure to establish a reparations feasibility commission. Most of the House Democrats have signed on too. However, the operative words are “feasibility” and “commission.” The first strongly implies there may or may not be ways and means or even grounds to shell out payments to African Americans for their two centuries of unpaid slave toil. When that’s coupled with “commission” it’s almost a code word for burying an issue. In fact, when politicians want to bury an issue while giving the appearance that they are serious about action usually to appease a public clamor for action, the cheap and easy way is to establish a commission. That’s usually where it ends.
Before top Democrats signed on to the commission idea, the demand for reparations was 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. That seemed to change during the Democratic primary campaign. Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced the Conyers’s bill to set up a committee to study the feasibility of reparations payments. The contenders all endorsed it. Even former president Obama who early on flatly opposed the idea has come around and now sees it as meriting a look.
But then what? Not one of the Democratic contenders pushed the issue on the campaign trail. They did not dare talk the need for slavery reparations 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. With no continual prodding, Biden and VP contender Kamala Harris will stay mum on the issue. There’s for a good reason.
Every poll that has been taken on reparations for slavery has repeatedly shown that most whites oppose it. The GOP attitude toward reparations was probably best summed up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who sneered at the idea that paying for something long past made any sense. The same polls show that a significant number of Blacks either outright oppose reparations or are uncertain about making this too much of an issue.
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.
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. The suspicion is deep 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.
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. This will always make reparations a very very tough sell.
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.