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Black people’s support for reparations has soared in sync with the concept’s receptivity among white Democrats and establishment Black politicians.

Reparations Rising

Nothing useful to the Black struggle will result from all this reparations-like drama if it remains within the Democratic Party’s corporate domain.

Gallup poll  released on Monday shows 73 percent of African Americans support reparations in the form of cash payments to the descendants of slaves – the highest level of Black pro-reparations sentiment ever recorded in a national survey. CNN anchor Don Lemon, one of the moderators of Tuesday’s half of this week’s Democratic presidential debates, asked Sen. Bernie Sanders how he would respond to Black reparations-seekers.

The Vermont Senator, a determinedly class-first, “socialist” politician, responded with his usual, less than inspiring endorsement of Black South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn’s “10/20/30 Formula Fight Persistent Poverty ” – which is not a reparations program at all. But Sanders pretended it was, clumsily adding, “And what that understands is that as a result of slavery, and segregation, and the institutional racism we see now in health care, in education, in financial services, we are going to have to focus big time on rebuilding distressed communities in America, including African-American communities.”

As if any proposal that takes note of “slavery,” “segregation” and “institutional racism” is a reparations plan. Sanders applied the same formula to education. “It's called the Thurgood Marshall Plan. And it would focus on ending the growth of segregated schools in America. It would triple funding for Title I schools. It would make sure that teachers in this country earned at least $60,000 a year.”

In the 2020 Democratic presidential season, it appears that all reforms that disproportionately affect Black people are to be called “reparations.”

Beto O’Rourke had earlier thrown reparations into the racial issues mix. “The legacy of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression is alive and well in every aspect of the economy and in the country,” said  the triangulating former Texas congressman. “Today, as president, I will sign into law a new Voting Rights Act. I will focus on education, address health care disparities, but I will also sign into law Sheila Jackson Lee's reparations bill so that we can have the national conversation we've waited too long in this country to have.”

Author Marianne Williamson, the only non-politician candidate on the night's lineup, calls for between $200 and $500 in financial assistance to descendants of slaves. Don Lemon challenged her qualifications to make such a proposal.

“I'll tell you what makes me qualified,” Williamson shot back. ”If you did the math of the 40 acres and a mule, given that there was 4 million to 5 million slaves at the end of the Civil War, four to five -- and they were all promised 40 acres and a mule for every family of four, if you did the math today, it would be trillions of dollars. And I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult.

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“And I believe that $200 billion to $500 billion is politically feasible today, because so many Americans realize there is an injustice that continues to form a toxicity underneath the surface, an emotional turbulence that only reparations will heal.”

If you did the math today, it would be trillions of dollars.

Williamson is right: her number is insulting. And Don Lemon, who is almost always wrong, was right this time: neither Williamson nor any other white person has moral or legal standing to formulate a proposal for Black reparations. As Frederick Douglass told us : “the man who has suffered the wrong is the man to demand redress—the man STRUCK is the man to CRY OUT.”

Notwithstanding Douglass’ admonitions, it is white Democratic presidential candidates – including Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard -- along with Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and Mexican-American hopeful Julian Castro, all faithful corporate servants -- that have made reparations an election year issue. Among the top tier candidates, only Joe Biden refuses to endorse the H.R. 40 reparations study bill.

Black people’s support for reparations has soared in sync with the concept’s receptivity among white Democrats and establishment Black politicians. Although reparations has always been part of the Black political agenda, it has most often been endorsed by about half of Black respondents to scientific surveys. A poll conducted in May of 2016 showed 58 percent  of Blacks favored reparations. By April of this year, as the Democratic campaign season got underway in earnest, the Rasmussen Report found 60 percent  of Blacks in favor of reparations. Then came the deluge of candidate “reparations” endorsements, and Black support for financial redress of historical grievances shot up to 73 percent – almost three out four Black respondents – a near-consensus for reparations that had not previously been expressed in polls.

In effect, the thumbs-up from leading Democrats for the concept of reparations has given Black people permission to demand what most have privately supported all along -- redress for the crimes that the U.S. state and society have inflicted upon them. We observed a very similar phenomenon in 2008 when Barack Obama was attempting to become the First Black U.S. President. Most Black elected officials were sticking with Hillary Clinton, as were about half of Black voters. But all that changed when Obama won the lily-white Iowa primary, proving his viability among white voters. Almost overnight, Black Democrats switched their allegiance to Obama. White Iowa voters had given Black people permission to back one of their own for president. The same thing is happening with reparations.

Seventy-three percent respondents a near-consensus for reparations.

But nothing useful to the Black struggle will result from all this reparations-like drama if it remains within the Democratic Party’s corporate domain. The same survey that showed three out of four Blacks favoring reparations revealed that only about half – 49 percent – of Democrats of all ethnicities favor cash reparations, with 47 percent against. Overwhelming proportions of white people of both parties oppose reparations.The numbers decree that some Democrats will support programs that they choose to call “reparations” in the primary season in order to garner Black votes in selected states, but will avoid the word like herpes when the general election season rolls around. Black elected officials will beat a quick retreat from the issue, resuming their “Me too, boss” postures -- what Ajamu Baraka calls subordination to the “dictates and agenda of the Democratic Party.”

The surge in Black support for reparations is useful to the Black struggle only if African Americans, themselves, are willing to a) define the issue and formulate demands, accordingly, and b) mobilize our people around those demands. As I wrote in the June 25 issue of BAR, “We are Already Late to the Great Black Reparations Debate”:

Forty million Black people can’t change a damn thing unless they argue collectively about what is to be done, and then organize to do it. The Great Black Reparations Debate can be the extended, independent forum for Black people to re-imagine themselves and their place in the nation and the world, and to act collectively to build a new society – one that is fit for our people’s habitation. Once such a mobilization is underway, it really doesn’t much matter what the corporate servants on Capitol Hill think reparations should look like – because Black people will have our own vision and plan.”

The 73 percent pro-“reparations” statistic represents a shared aspiration and a near-consensus among the nation’s Black population, who are a people with a specific history, not just a dependable Democratic voting bloc (or “progressive” constituency). The duty of those who claim to serve the people, is clear. Lots of meetings are in order.


Glen Ford
Executive Editor, Black Agenda Report