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As Democrats gear up for a competitive 2020 presidential campaign, the potentially divisive and fraught issue of reparations for slavery has surfaced as a prominent issue. How has this topic, which hasn’t always been part of the national political conversation, attracted so much attention recently, and how do current presidential candidates feel about addressing it? Yamiche Alcindor reports.
As we reported earlier, undergraduates at Georgetown university voted to create a reparations fund that, if approved, would be the first of its kind.
As Yamiche Alcindor reports, it's also become an issue on the campaign trail, where it hasn't always been front and center.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:
America was founded on principles of liberty and freedom and on the backs of slave labor.
An unexpected 2020 topic: reparations.
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.
Now on the campaign trail, there are repeated questions about how to deal with the lasting impact of slavery.
Do you think there should be actual monetary payments to descendants of slaves?
Do you support reparations for slavery?
From progressives to moderates, Democratic candidates are jumping into this decades-long debate. Columbia University's John McWhorter:
What they're doing is saying, in the way that it happens to be the fashion in 2019, rather than 2009, of saying, I am concerned with the plight of black America. And I'm glad that they are.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.:
What I'm tired of doing is admiring the problem.
The issue has become a hot topic, but there's no agreement on a solution or even a definition of the term itself. Eva Paterson is a founder of the Equal Justice Society.
For centuries, kidnapped Africans worked for free to make America great, and to make businesses very wealthy, and we recouped none of the benefits.
In addition, centuries of discrimination and bias have also put African-Americans in a very untenable situation, and so reparations are a way to make us whole.
Some candidates want to study the issue. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is a co-sponsor of a House bill that would look into and come up with suggestions for reparations. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is backing that legislation. And Senator Cory Booker recently introduced a Senate version of that bill.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:
This conversation cannot just become a political box-checking exercise, or a litmus test without meaning. The boldest policies we're talking about right now can't just be about sentiment or about acknowledging the past. They need to be about actually balancing the economic scales and confronting the biases that exist right now, in the present.
If elected, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro plans to create a task force.
If, under the Constitution, we compensate people because we take their property, why wouldn't you compensate people who actually were property?
Other presidential hopefuls are talking cash.
One school of thought is to amass all that money and put it into housing, education, health and the like. Another school of thought has the whole idea of 40 acres and a mule, which would now I think translate into 40 acres and a Tesla, which would mean that individual black people who could show they were the descendants of enslaved people would get checks.
Candidate Marianne Williamson is an author and spiritual adviser. She wants to appoint a council that would allocate $100 billion to projects that would help African-Americans over 10 years.
It's a moral argument. If I take $1,000 from you and then I apologize to you, wouldn't you also feel, thank you, I appreciate the apology, and I'd like my money back?
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang wants to create a universal basic income. Every American, regardless of race or income, would get $1,000 per month.
I 100 percent agree with the moral case for reparations.
He believes that money, or dividends, could help move the country toward reparations.
California Senator Kamala Harris is also pushing a plan that would benefit people of all races. Her bill gives a tax credit to middle-class Americans.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:
People aren't starting out on the same base, in terms of their ability to succeed. And so we have got to recognize that and give people a lift up.
Then there is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He rejects the idea of direct payments to descendants of slaves.
What about straight cash payouts?
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:
Sanders says he will help all oppressed communities by taking on big banks and other entities he argues hurt those groups.
I think what we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities, black communities, Latino communities and white communities, all over this country.
McWhorter believes policies like that have been happening and are already a form of reparations.
Affirmative action in all of its effects is reparations. Black History Month is reparations. The fact that we're having this conversation and taking reparations seriously can be seen as reparations.
Welfare reform, which enabled more poor people, and it was aimed mainly at black people to take advantage of welfare in the late 1960s, that was reparations. The only thing is, those things weren't officially titled reparations for slavery and Jim Crow.
Others argue policies that are not race-specific can't be called reparations. Again, Eva Paterson:
I think it is foolish to say that if we help all people, we will help African-Americans. If you look at any programs that have been instituted in our country, when you lump everybody in, white people get a leg up. It's just the way it is. It doesn't mean they're evil. The system is set up to privilege and favor white people.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar argues reparations can be done without exchanging money.
I believe we have to invest in those communities that have been so hurt by racism. It doesn't have to be a direct pay for each person. But what we can do is invest in those communities, acknowledge what's happened.
As an alternative, she points to investments in community college, child care and a higher minimum wage.
Fellow Midwesterner Pete Buttigieg also doesn't back giving out cash. He does think policies should address inequities created by slavery.
I absolutely believe that we need to have some kind of accounting for the persistent racial inequities today that are there by design because of past and present racism.
And so it means our policies and our policy interventions on everything from criminal justice to housing need to be designed in such a way that they're targeting those areas in our economy and our society.
Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke is also against cash payments. He told Iowa voters recently it's important to — quote — "confront the truth" about how black Americans are treated.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee doesn't have a policy prescription. Last month, he told the "NewsHour" last month something should be done to make up for the history of slavery.
Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.:
And the kind of things we should do, I think, should focus on ending intergenerational poverty.
Some, like McWhorter, don't think reparations will be enough to remedy that history.
Unless a person could, after reparations happened, look America in the eye and say, America has turned a corner on race, serious progress has been made, the second shoe has dropped, if people couldn't be comfortable saying that and really sitting in it and feeling it, then I'm not sure why we should go through trying to get reparations at all.
One veteran politician still weighing whether to run for the Democratic nomination is facing criticism for past statements.
In 1975, then-Senator Joe Biden told a Delaware newspaper — quote — "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."
For Democrats running in 2020, it remains to be seen whether reparations will become a litmus test.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.
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