Earl Ofari Hutchinson
President Biden minced no words when asked about reparations for Blacks during an address to an audience in Spartanburg South Carolina during the Democratic primary contest there last February. “I support that study (of reparations) — let’s see where that takes us.” Fast forward five months to July. With much fanfare, Biden issued a sweeping “racial equity” plan for combatting institutional racism in America. There was not one word about reparations, the study, or any hint of support from him of it. The omission raised eyebrows and left many Blacks who ardently back reparations wondering which Biden to believe on reparations.
Biden was plopped squarely on the hot seat on the always thorny, demanding, and contentious, and perennial issue of reparations when every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate pledged to back a congressional commission to study the feasibility of reparation payments to Blacks. Former President Obama who early on flatly opposed the idea came around and called it an issue that merited a look. With so many Democratic heavy hitters seemingly on board on the issue, the implication was that there would soon be some action on some form of payments.
Since Democrats slammed the issue onto the nation’s public-policy plate during the 2020 presidential campaign, several of them offered plans. They entail some form of reparations be it tax credits, more funding for education, and child and health care for Blacks.
This leads the issue back to Biden. If Democrats really embrace the idea, then the next question is: how hard would he be willing to push the issue as a major policy issue?
This is dicey at best. Every poll that has been taken on reparations for slavery has repeatedly shown that most 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.
During the campaign, Democratic presidential contender, Bernie Sanders, was worried that reparations could be a potential mine field for Democrats. He said he didn’t back reparations. Eventually, he pivoted and jumped on the feasibility study bandwagon. This was a tepid compromise and sounded like a face-saving ploy banking that the issue would fade into obscurity when the presidential campaign season heated up.
The COVID pandemic muscled the issue, as most others, off the public issues table. However, the commanding role that African American voters played in Biden’s bagging the White House made it certain that the issue would emerge again as an issue that Biden would be forced to address. He made that almost a certainty when he publicly pledged to tackle in either legislation or executive orders, or both, the deep-seated problem on institutional racism. Eyes will be looking close to see if Biden does at least make a public nod to the legitimacy, if not the need, for some form of reparations as a step to closing the colossal economic gap between Blacks and whites in America. No assault on institutional racism can even remotely be called credible without some attempt at this closure.
Biden almost certainly knows that if he makes that nod, he’ll come under withering fire from the GOP, and the entire chorus of conservative mouthpieces who never tire of reminding Blacks and now the Democrats that reparations is a supposed screwball idea that most whites vehemently oppose. They will tell him that for a President who proclaims he wants to be President of all the people he’d cook his own goose if he pushed what they claim is 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. If the focus is seen solely to compensate the descendants of Black slaves and whipsaw whites for modern-day racism, getting any traction will be near impossible.
Yet. Biden 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 made their with the reparations issue. The toughest question of all is will Biden lay in it?
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.