How Reparations for Slavery Became a 2020 Campaign Issue

“If you agree it’s the right thing to do, then the fact that it may not poll well isn’t a concern,” Mr. Romanoff said. “Consensus doesn’t magically materialize, it has to be forged.”

Some polls indicate that current conditions may be ripe for forging consensus on issues that long seemed beyond the sphere of political possibility. In the two weeks after the killing of George Floyd, public support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased almost as much as it had in the preceding two years. The idea of defunding or abolishing the police, which was for years relegated primarily to the realm of a hashtag, has inched closer to reality in Minneapolis, where a veto-proof majority of the City Council has pledged to disband its police department.

And the country has now seen both a public health crisis and an economic crisis that disproportionately hurt black Americans. “Whenever we have an economic shock, you see black people have a harder time recovering because of historical discrimination connected to the wealth gap,” said Andre Perry, a Brookings Institution fellow and a co-author of a recent report on reparations. “Now you see how easily we found money to give out when white people were suffering because of Covid and you scratch your head.”

Practicality is not the only impediment mentioned. A nationwide poll conducted last year found that while a majority of black Americans favor reparations, they think of the proposal as less helpful than other progressive policies such as a higher minimum wage and stronger anti-discrimination laws.

The country’s first systematic attempt to offer a form of reparations for slavery came when Union General William T. Sherman issued an order, in 1865, promising 40 acres of land, and later a mule, to former slaves. The idea originated in a conversation the general and War Secretary Edwin Stanton held with 20 leaders of the black community in Savannah, Ga. But Andrew Johnson, President Lincoln’s successor, overturned the order months later. (The name of the house reparations bill, H.R. 40, is a reference to those promised 40 acres.)

“With 40 acres and a mule, what slaves were asking for was the ability to become functioning members of society, by working,” said Royce West, a Texas state senator who is running in a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. At a recent debate he said he leans in favor of reparations; his opponent, M.J. Hegar, did not go that far, saying she would want to study the issue further. “That particular promise was never kept by government because the politics did away with it,” he added.

More than a century and a half later, Mr. West is hopeful that the politics constraining that unfulfilled promise have changed. “Right now you have corporate America throwing money at the problem,” he said, referring to the million of dollars poured into racial justice organizations in recent weeks. “The question is how will that money be spent.”

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