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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Get Ready for the GOP Attack on Reparations

Seeing a few straws in the wind, I wrote up for New York some concerns about the likely Trump/Republicans demagoguery about racial reparations.

Some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in discussing anti-inequality measures have mentioned the moral rationale for a particular effort on behalf of African-Americans who were enslaved and then (under Jim Crow) semi-enslaved, and are suffering from systemic racism even now. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has made the obvious point that the legacy of slavery and its successor regimes has had a negative impact on the ability of black families to accumulate wealth over generations. Her proposed remedies, especially universal child care, are not actually “race conscious,” and aren’t similar to the cash compensation to descendants of slaves that is usually connoted by the term “reparations.” But there are signs that Republicans looking for a fresh way to appeal to white voters worried about alleged redistribution of resources from themselves to minorities may use the r-word to describe any and all race-conscious rationales for public initiatives. Fox News’ highly influential Tucker Carlson devoted an entire segment to the subject last week based on the premise that Democrats are stampeding in the direction of reparations.

Carlson and his guest are probably canaries in the coal mine in terms of the likely interest of Republicans in adding “No Reparations!” to their “No Socialism!” battle cry for 2020. At FiveThirtyEight, Perry Bacon Jr. explains that relatively strong public awareness of past and present racism does not translate into support for anything like reparations.

But when it comes to acting on these beliefs, notes Bacon, public opinion is significantly more mixed. And sizable majorities reject the idea of “reparations” as they are commonly understood:

“A July 2018 survey from the left-leaning Data for Progress found that 26 percent of Americans supported some kind of compensation or cash benefits for the descendants of slaves. A May 2016 Marist survey also found that 26 percent of Americans said the U.S. should pay reparations as ‘a way to make up for the harm caused by slavery and other forms of racial discrimination.'”

That Marist poll showed 68 percent of respondents, and 81 percent of white respondents, opposing reparations, defined as “money [paid] to African-Americans who are descendents of slaves.”

Now it should be noted immediately that an idea’s unpopularity is not an inherent reason for Democrats rejecting it (as Bacon puts it, “That’s kind of the point of bold ideas — they wouldn’t be bold if everyone already agreed with them.”) And Lord knows Republicans insist on promoting very unpopular ideas, from total opposition to gun regulation to supply-side economics to a ban on all abortions.

But being attacked for a position you do not actually hold is another thing altogether. So far, no 2020 Democratic candidate has embraced “reparations” as the public understands the term (cash payments to all descendants of slaves). But it appears some candidates, led by Warren and Kamala Harris (who called for “reparations” in the form of “investing in historically black colleges, improving maternal mortality rates for black women, and reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system”) may finally begin to entertain the broader question of America’s moral and material debts to those it not only oppressed but robbed.

In his landmark 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates sought to document those debts in some detail, but concluded that the most important step white America needed to take was simply to acknowledge its falsified history and come to grips with what that means today:

“Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely …

“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling ‘patriotism’ while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

This idea may not be as controversial as cash reparations, but even if stated honestly, it will become a target for fury among the MAGA folk who believe the abolition of slavery discharged all obligations to African-Americans, and that the falsified past Coates speaks of was one long reign of glory endangered by political correctness and the demands of the previously marginalized. One of the most pervasive ideas of contemporary conservatism (championed, for example, by one of its leading lights, former House Speaker Paul Ryan), in fact, is that liberating impoverished people is best accomplished by denying them any government assistance at all, so as to spur them on the road to self-sufficiency.

So Democrats and the media need to set the record straight on what “reparations” actually mean when discussed by Warren, Harris, and others. But they shouldn’t run away from the inevitable conflicts over what they domean and do propose. They owe a reckoning over racism’s legacy not just to the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers and victims of official and unofficial discrimination; they owe it to their country and its willingness to live up to its purported values.

If that offers Donald Trump another demagogic talking point for 2020, so be it. He’s not going to start telling the truth simply because Democrats tell less of the truth than they should.

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