Several Democratic presidential candidates are embracing reparations for the descendants of slaves — but not in the traditional sense.
Over the past week, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro spoke of the need for the U.S. government to reckon with and make up for centuries of stolen labor and legal oppression. But instead of backing the direct compensation of African-Americans for the legacy of slavery, the Democratic candidates are talking about using tax credits and other subsidies.
Long defined as some type of direct payment to former slaves and their descendants, the shifting definition of reparations comes as White House hopefuls seek to solidify their ties with African-Americans whose support will be crucial to winning the Democratic nomination. But it risks prompting both withering criticism from Republicans and a shrug from black voters and activists if the proposals are seen as an empty gesture that simply renames existing policy ideas as reparations.
"Universal programs are not specific to the injustices that have been inflicted on African-Americans," said Duke University economist William Darity, a veteran advocate of reparations. "I want to be sure that whatever is proposed and potentially enacted as a reparations program really is a substantive and dramatic intervention in the patterns of racial wealth inequality in the United States — not something superficial or minor that is labeled as reparations and then politicians say the national responsibility has been met."
Montague Simmons of the Movement for Black Lives, which has pushed for reparations, said the debate is "not just cash payments."
But "unless we're talking about something that has to be systemic and transfers power to the community, it's not likely going to be what we would consider reparations," he said.
For now, that's not how most Democratic presidential contenders are talking about reparations.
Harris has proposed monthly payments to qualified citizens of any race in the form of a tax credit. Warren has called for universal child care that would guarantee the benefit from birth until a child enters school. Families with income less than 200 percent of the poverty line would get free access and others would pay no more than 7 percent of their income.
Those benefits would likely have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. But except for longshot candidate Marianne Williamson, no Democratic White House hopeful has called for financial remuneration for blacks.
Harris told reporters in Iowa on Sunday that "we have to all acknowledge that people have not started out on the same base and have not had equal opportunities to success."
Castro told The Root, a black online news site, that America "would be better off" if the government addressed the issue of reparations, which he said he would explore if elected.
And in New Hampshire on Friday, Warren said the U.S. needs to confront its "ugly history of racism" and "talk about the right way to address it." Asked whether she would support reparations for Native Americans, she responded: "It's an important part of the conversation."
Warren has been criticized for claiming Native American identity early in her career and apologized recently to the Cherokee Nation for releasing DNA test results as evidence she had Native American in her bloodline, albeit at least six generations back.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, asked at a CNN town hall Monday about his position on reparations given Warren's and Castro's comments, said, "What does that mean? What do they mean? I'm not sure anyone's very clear." He said the U.S. must put resources into distressed communities to improve the lives of people affected by the legacy of slavery.
Sanders did not support reparations during his 2016 presidential campaign.
In terms of a direct payment, reparations could be a tough political sell. In a Point Taken-Marist poll conducted in 2016, 68 percent of Americans said the country should not pay cash reparations to African-American descendants of slaves. About 8 in 10 white Americans said they were opposed to reparations, while about 6 in 10 black Americans said they were in favor.
Republican strategist Whit Ayres said the issue of reparations is "symptomatic of the fundamental debate that is roiling the Democratic Party today."
"There is no doubt that issues of race have been and remain critically important in American society," he said. "But the idea that you resolve those issues by taking money from white people and giving it to black people will make race relations worse, not better. Republicans would love to have that debate."
Pressed on "Fox News Sunday" on whether reparations would ultimately end up in the Democratic platform, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said the issue is "something that will be discussed during the course of the presidential nominating process."
Even if Democrats are rethinking the definition of reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who sparked a national debate over the issue with a 2014 essay in The Atlantic, said the recent chatter is promising. He noted that a Dave Chappelle comedy skit mocked the idea in 2003.
"It has generally been dismissed as utter lunacy," Coates said. "It's not being mocked now. Step one is to get people to stop laughing."
When Barack Obama ran to become the nation's first African-American president, he opposed reparations. But in an interview with Coates in the final days of his presidency, he didn't question the legitimacy of the concept.
"Theoretically, you can make, obviously, a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps," Obama said, referencing the racial disparities faced by black Americans today.
"That those were wrongs done to the black community as a whole, and black families specifically, and that in order to close that gap, a society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it's not in the form of reparations checks, but in the form of a Marshall Plan, in order to close those gaps," Obama said, referring to the American initiative to provide economic assistance to Western Europe after World War II.
Still, he said it was politically difficult to achieve such a goal.
If presidential candidates want to prove they're serious about reparations, some proponents say they should back H.R. 40, the Reparations Study Act first introduced by former Michigan Rep. John Conyers in 1989. He reintroduced the bill every session until his resignation in 2017.
Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee took up the legislation after Conyers' departure and reintroduced the bill in 2018, but it has not been introduced in the current Congress.
"It's not wrong to say we need to cure cancer — which is what I take the support of reparations to actually be — but we don't have a full diagnosis yet," Coates said. "If you can actually get a study that outlines what actually happened, what the needs are, what the debt actually is, and how it was incurred, then you can design programs to actually address it. That gets you out of the vagaries of just saying you support reparations."