Warren’s support for a reparations committee may be politically shaky, but the moral case is solid

It’s unlikely to be a vote-winner for the 2020 candidate, but it’s started a conversation that’s long overdue.

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In a town hall on 17 March, the Massachusetts senator and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren said that she would support the creation of a commission to study reparations for the descendants of slaves and examine ways in which the government could redress, perhaps through financial compensation, the long and harmful legacy of slavery and racism in the US.

She is not the first 2020 presidential candidate to call for a reparations commission – the long-shot candidate and former housing and urban development secretary Julian Castro also lent his support for a similar commission earlier this year. Californian senator Kamala Harris has expressed an interest in exploring reparations, too, though her public comments on the issue are often vague.

Warren declined to say whether she supported financial reparations, but her clear commitment to a government study into reparations is a significant development – not least because it could push other candidates to follow suit.

John Conyers, who served as the Democratic representative for Detroit between 1965 and 2017, first introduced the HR-40 bill, which would study the effects of slavery and examine possible remedies, in 1989. He reintroduced it every Congress after that, but it never made the House floor.

Conyers’ ideas were given a new boost in 2014, when the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates published his masterful essay on “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic magazine, which went viral. He writes:

Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.

To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.

Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

Coates’ essay reveals not only the compelling moral case for studying reparations – the process of doing so may come to matter as much as the reports’ final conclusions – but also highlights the political risk involved.

Reparations are not a popular idea: two 2018 polls suggest only around a quarter of Americans would support the payment of financial reparations. Resurgent interest in reparations is likely to fire-up fierce attacks from the right, as well as considerable infighting on the left. Writing in Esquire, Ryan Lizza expressed concern that support for reparations was becoming a new and damaging test of political wokeness:

A lot of candidates—not to mention voters and commentators and journalists—are going to make mistakes navigating the party's new politics of race, gender, and class. (Personally I side with the reparations advocates that at the very least a Conyers-like study of the issue is long overdue.) But I can’t think of a worse development for Democrats than if reparations, an enormously controversial and politically untested issue, turns into yet another purity test for the party.

It's worth remembering, however, that a commitment to studying reparations policies is not the same as a commitment to paying financial reparations. As Coates points out, it may be that the commission concludes that no payment can redress the historic injustices suffered by black Americans.

It also strikes me as hard for any politician on the left to make a convincing moral case for refusing to even look into the subject of reparations. Warren’s proposals will likely force more candidates to confront the long-simmering question of reparations and formulate a response. It may not be a huge vote-winner for Warren, but one cannot help but feel that this conversation is long overdue.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.