Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Lesson Plans

Democratic 2020 candidates debate reparations

April 18, 2019

Full Lesson


Directions: Read the summary, watch the videos and answer the discussion questions below. You may want to turn on the “CC” (closed-captions) function and read along with the transcript here.

Summary: The lasting impact of slavery is a current issue of debate for many Democratic 2020 presidential candidates. “America was founded on principles of liberty and freedom and on the backs of slave labor,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat. “Until that original sin is addressed, we may think that we’re moving forward as one nation, but I don’t think that we ever really will,” said candidate Julian Castro, former housing secretary under President Obama.

Some candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang believe there should be policies to benefit all communities regardless of race, such as universal income and stricter regulations on big banks. On the other hand, founder of the Equal Justice Society Eva Patterson argues that reparations are the only way to relieve the burden of centuries of slavery and discrimination for many African Americans today. “Reparations are a way to make us whole,” she says.

Discussion questions:

1. Essential question: How might the opinions of the 2020 candidates on the issue of reparations make a difference to voters?

2. How can the government help African Americans who have been hurt by America’s history of slavery and discrimination?

3. What might the potential long-term impacts of reparations on African Americans be? If you are not sure, how could you find out?

4. In 1975, then-Senator Joe Biden said, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I will be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” Do you agree or disagree with Biden’s comments? Explain. How much do past wrongs in history influence the present? The future?

5. There are several opinions on how to approach reparations. Some 2020 candidates advocate for investments in community college and childcare; others say criminal justice reform and a higher minimum wage are needed. Eva Patterson, founder of the Equal Justice Society, supports monetary reparations for African Americans but has some concerns about how other groups would benefit disproportionately to that of African Americans. Do you agree with the idea of reparations? Explain. If so, what do you think is an equitable approach to the issue of reparations?

6. Media literacy: How are various media outlets covering the issue of reparations and Democratic candidates? Take a close look at the headlines and how much in-depth coverage is given to reparations. As you do, keep in mind New Jersey Democrat Senator Cory Booker, “This conversation cannot just become a political box-checking exercise or a litmus test without meaning.” What do you think Booker meant by this statement?

Extension activities:

1. Students at Georgetown University recently voted to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people who were sold by Jesuit leaders at the college in order to pay off college debts in 1838. (read Inside Higher Ed’s Georgetown students vote to add fee to pay reparations to learn more). Do you agree with students at Georgetown who voted in favor of reparations? Explain. Do you think the administration at Georgetown will follow the students’ lead and make monetary reparations? Why or why not? 

2. Watch this video about discussions at Georgetown University to make amends for its past actions of selling enslaved people. The university is taking steps to atone for its mistakes by favoring applicants who are the descendants of slaves, erecting a public memorial and creating a new institute on its campus for the study of slavery.

a. Do you think more universities should confront their past with slavery and follow Georgetown’s approach? Should reparations be made to their African American students?

b. How could you learn more about the many other universities that have past ties to slavery?

For monthly updates containing teacher resources on Election 2020, click here.

Sign up for short education highlights from the PBS NewsHour here.