Reparations, Really?

Nati Harnik/AP Photo

As part of her recent proposals on college tuition, Elizabeth Warren included $50 billion for historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions. 

Donald Trump and Steve Bannon must be smiling from ear to ear and celebrating their good fortune whenever they hear one of the Democratic presidential candidates endorsing a bill to establish a commission to study reparations for descendants of slaves—a proposal that everyone will take as preliminary to support for financial reparations. It's the sort of idea Trump and Bannon can work with, to expand and lock down Republican support among white voters next year.

Not every idea with a moral justification has a political justification in an imperfect world. If Democrats fail to win the 2020 election, Trump will have an opportunity to bring about deeper and more durable change in his second term than in his first. For one thing, he’ll likely be able to add two more conservatives to the Supreme Court, replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, and a 7-2 right-wing Court could radically alter legal doctrine in every sphere, including civil rights.

So, even considered just from the standpoint of racial justice, the Democrats’ top priority ought to be winning the election, not running a campaign of moral gestures toward ideas that are overwhelmingly unpopular and might well cost them the White House.

Instead of keeping their eye on the general election, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are now mainly concerned with winning the nomination, and that competition is driving a shift with profound implications. In 2016, Bernie Sanders called for policies that were radically redistributive but race-neutral. This year, some of the progressive candidates are trying to exploit what they see as a vulnerability of Sanders—his potential weakness among black voters.

In a Politico story last week, Laura Barrón-López claims that Elizabeth Warren is approaching “breakout with black voters” because of her attention to black issues and her role as “one of the first candidates to endorse a House bill establishing a commission to study reparations for the descendants of slaves.” Barrón-López quotes a black political consultant, Ifeoma Ike, founding co-principal of the firm Think Rubix, who approves of Warren’s moves: “This is an area where she’s actually breaking away from Bernie. The minute she started talking about reparations, other candidates did too.”

Democrats’ thinking about race and redistributive politics has certainly changed in recent decades. In 1990, in the first issue of The American Prospect, the sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote about “Race-Neutral Policies and the Democratic Coalition”:

Many white Americans have turned, not against blacks, but against a strategy that emphasizes programs perceived to benefit only racial minorities. In the 1990s the party needs to promote new policies to fight inequality that differ from court-ordered busing, affirmative action programs, and antidiscrimination lawsuits of the recent past. By stressing coalition politics and race-neutral programs such as full employment strategies, job skills training, comprehensive health care, reforms in the public schools, child care legislation, and prevention of crime and drug abuse, the Democrats can significantly strengthen their position.

That, in fact, was the basic strategy of liberal Democrats—and even democratic socialists—until recently, although Wilson himself modified his position on race-neutral policies when he revisited the subject in our pages in 2011. At that point, he endorsed race-specific policies as long as they fit Americans’ beliefs about opportunity:

[P]rograms that enable blacks to take advantage of opportunities are less likely to be seen as challenging the work ethic and the American values of individualism. The implications for political framing are obvious—opportunity-enhancing affirmative-action programs are supported because they reinforce the belief that the allocation of jobs and economic rewards should be based on individual effort, training, and talent.

Wilson’s distinctions may be helpful in evaluating proposals to reduce the racial wealth gap.

The Baby Bonds proposal conceived by Darrick Hamilton and presented by Hamilton and William Darity Jr. (see here and here) is an opportunity-enhancing, race-neutral program that would establish a federally endowed account at birth for all children, varying from an initial value of $60,000 at the lowest family incomes to $500 at high income levels, with about $25,000 for a middle-class child. Britain for a time had a similar though less generous program; Hillary Clinton in 2008 endorsed the idea, funded at a level of $5,000 per child, to be used at age 18 or later for education or buying a home. Hamilton and Darity say their proposal would reduce the racial wealth gap tenfold. Even if not funded at as high a level as they call for, it could be a major step toward closing that gap, without incurring all the opposition that reparations would generate.

In contrast, financial reparations dispensed in the form of checks to the individual descendants of slaves would be out of line with American beliefs about work and opportunity—and the reparation payments might not, in fact, be nearly as effective in achieving racial equality in the long run. Darity, according to a Washington Post article, says a reparations program should cost $1 trillion at a minimum. That’s a lot of money. But divided among the 37 million African Americans in the United States, it comes to a one-time payout of about $27,000 per person. Over and done with.

Opportunity-enhancing, race-specific policies represent a third avenue. The racial wealth gap is not just individual; it’s also institutional. As part of her recent proposals on college tuition, Warren included $50 billion for historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions. That would effectively be a form of institutionally based reparations, which might not raise as much opposition as reparation checks to individuals. (It’s similar to an idea I proposed in 1992 for an “Endowment for Black America,” though I was talking about private philanthropy, not federal funds.)

But even here, the priority for Democrats has to be ideas that will help them win a majority in 2020, and reparations in any form will not get them there. Endorsing a commission to study reparations is no solution; it will only invite more questions to the candidates about what they support and what taxes they propose to raise to pay for reparations. Leaving those questions open will only seem evasive, and in the general election, leaving them open will allow the Republicans to define the issue.

African Americans may or may not ever receive reparations, but the 2020 Democratic candidates who are moving in that direction have already given Trump and Bannon a priceless gift.

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