When I wrote Long Overdue: The Politics of Racial Reparations in 2007, I was responding to someone who said it could never happen. So why talk about it? Specifically, the someone was veteran civil rights leader Vernon Jordan who was asked about his views on Randall Robinson’s book The Debt. Jordan’s view was reflected in the views of many policy makers on both the left and right.
Democrats like Al Gore, the Clintons and Barack Obama were careful to say they thought Blacks had suffered years of abuse and neglect but were unwilling to commit to even a study of reparations. Late in his presidency, Clinton launched a race commission chaired by Historian John Hope Franklin that had a mandate to address racial disparities but not reparations. Even the very modest proposals of that commission were shelved.
How times have changed! All the major Democratic candidates for president in 2020 endorsed either immediate reparations or a study commission. They were responding to a shift in public opinion that began during the Obama administration. Polling data immediately before and after Obama’s election showed Americans to be more optimistic about race relation than they had in recent years.
That optimism rapidly receded despite the administration’s best efforts to neutralize race as a political issue. According to political scientist Michael Tesler, “the election of President Obama helped usher in a ‘most-racial’ political era where racially liberal and racially conservative Americans were more divided over a whole host of political positions than they had been in modern times.”
A Kaiser/CNN poll found that respondents believe racial tensions are worse today than twenty years ago. Sixty-four percent said tensions were increasing in 2015 compared to 47 percent in 1995. Similarly, a Gallup poll found that for the first time in nearly two decades most Black Americans describe black-white relations as “bad.”
The share of White liberals who say racial prejudice is the main reason Blacks cannot get ahead has jumped substantially since 2014.
This political polarization has pushed White Democrats leftward. One report contends that White liberals have moved considerably left on questions related to race since 2012. It attributes this shift to a campus-and online-driven cultural awakening that has accelerated in response to Trump.
The share of White liberals who say racial prejudice is the main reason Blacks cannot get ahead has jumped substantially since 2014. The number of respondents who disagree with the statement, “Blacks should do like other minorities without special favors,” rose from 20 percent in 1994 to 46 percent in 2016.
In fact, a 2016 American National Election Survey (ANES) found White liberals are warmer toward minorities than their own racial group (80% to 70%). Gallup reports a 20 percent rise in liberalism among White Democrats (from 34% to 54%) with a smaller increase among Hispanic Democrats at 9 percent (from 29% to 38%) and among Black Democrats at an 8 percent increase (from 25% to 33%). A 2017 Pew poll finds the share of Americans who say racial discrimination is the main reason Blacks are unable to get ahead is now at its highest level dating back more than two decades.
This shift left among Democrats translates into increased support for racial reparations. A 2019 Gallup poll reported total support for reparations in the form of cash payments from the government for Blacks descended from slaves rose from 14 percent in 2002 to 29 percent today. Among Whites support was up from 6 percent to 16 percent and among Blacks support rose from 55 percent to 73 percent.
This past summer Congress held its first ever hearing on racial reparations. Every year beginning in 1989 until his retirement from the House of Representatives in 2017, John Conyers of Michigan introduced HR 40, a bill calling for the federal government to study the impact of slavery and make recommendations for reparations to the 35 million American descendants of the enslaved. The bill was modeled after the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was successful in granting an apology and reparations to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War II.
Despite being the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers was never able to hold hearings on his bill during both Republican and Democratic administrations. In 2017, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas took over sponsorship of the bill and was successful in holding hearings through the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the House Judiciary Committee in 2019.
Now the continued White nationalism of Trump, the obvious health disparities exposed by COVID-19, and the relentless daily assault of videos showing the extent and brutality of America’s police departments have pushed us to a reckoning.
NASCAR is removing confederate flags from its racetracks, Democratic leaders are demanding the removal of Confederate statues in the Capitol and Confederate names on our military bases, the NFL says it now joins Kaepernick in taking a knee, Bristol, England has torn down the statute of a slave trader, the Belgians are doing the same with King Leopold and the list goes on.
Maybe now we can conceive that it’s time to have some truth and reconciliation. Maybe we can begin to talk in a meaningful way about human rights education in our schools as well as our police departments. Maybe we can address the resegregation and defunding of our public schools. Maybe we can begin to fill the gaps in Obamacare rather than tearing it down. Maybe we can understand that reparations means to repair once we have acknowledged that something is broken.
The Berkeley Blog
Charles Henry is professor emeritus of African American studies, former president of the National Council for Black Studies and former chair of Amnesty International USA. His expertise is in race in America, black identity and leadership. In 2007, he taught a graduate level course on Obama and black leadership.