Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations

Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats are warming to the idea of studying reparations for African Americans whose ancestors suffered economically as a result of slavery and decades of repressive Jim Crow-era laws.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerColorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down Trump ahead of New Hampshire speech: Lewandowski would be 'fantastic' senator Hickenlooper ends presidential bid MORE (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday told a small group of reporters that he supports legislation sponsored by Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSteve King to Gillibrand: Odds of me resigning same as yours of winning presidential nomination We need a climate plan for agriculture 2020 Democrats urge Israel to reverse decision banning Omar, Tlaib visit MORE (D-N.J.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeJackson Lee: 'Racism is a national security threat' Most oppose cash reparations for slavery: poll Poll: Most Americans oppose reparations MORE (D-Texas) that would set up a commission to explore reparations, signaling changing attitudes among Democrats on the charged issue.

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Booker said he “absolutely” thinks he’s getting traction as more Democrats come around to supporting an examination of the issue.

“I’m excited that people can really focus past the bluster of people who want to demonize the idea that we should study a way to address specific past economic harms and try to create more economic equality,” Booker, who is running for president, told The Hill.

“When people actually can focus in on what the actual bill says, it’s something that is frankly not objectionable,” he added. “I think there’s an openness to having this urgently needed conversation, especially as we deal with the continuing legacy of past specific economic harms that have helped to bake in structural inequality in our country.”

Booker’s bill has 15 co-sponsors in the Senate, and he says he is actively seeking to expand the list.

Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPoll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Fox News poll shows Trump losing to Biden, Warren, Sanders and Harris MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren unveils Native American policy plan Poll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April Obama has taken active interest in Biden's campaign: report MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment MORE (I-Vt.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharNative American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Biden, Sanders, Warren support dips in new poll 2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally MORE (D-Minn.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandSteve King to Gillibrand: Odds of me resigning same as yours of winning presidential nomination The Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? King incites furor with abortion, rape and incest remarks MORE (D-N.Y.), who are all running for the Democratic presidential nomination, have co-sponsored Booker’s bill.

Race relations and economic inequality have become central topics of debate ahead of the 2020 election.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren unveils Native American policy plan Live-action 'Mulan' star spurs calls for boycott with support of Hong Kong police Don't let other countries unfairly tax America's most innovative companies MORE sparked a heated debate this week over what constitutes racist language when he tweeted on Sunday that four Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came,” even though all of them are American citizens and three were born in the United States.

Schumer, who on Monday excoriated Trump over his comments, told reporters the following day that racism is “the poison of America.” He then pledged to support establishing a commission to study reparations for slavery and discriminatory laws.

“The disparities in race affect everything, not just the obvious things,” Schumer said. “The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow are still with us.”

But while there is growing support among Democrats on Capitol Hill for studying reparations, lawmakers warn it’s a tricky issue.

A nationwide poll conducted in July 2018 by Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank, found that 26 percent of respondents supported reparations, compared with 47 percent who were opposed to the idea.

That level of support was unchanged from a Marist poll two years earlier that found 26 percent supported reparations, while 68 percent said the federal government should not compensate the descendants of slaves.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinHouse panel investigating decision to resume federal executions To combat domestic terrorism, Congress must equip law enforcement to fight rise in white supremacist attacks Five proposals Congress is eyeing after mass shootings MORE (D-Ill.), a co-sponsor of Booker’s bill, said “looking at alternatives is reasonable,” and that he would like to hear the suggestions of a special commission on reparations.

As an alumnus of Georgetown University, Durbin noted that students at his alma mater voted earlier this year to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves whose forced labor benefited the school.

“That was the right thing to do,” he said about the vote.

But Durbin said the question of how and whether to pay reparations to tens of millions of African Americans is tough to answer.

“It is impossible to argue against the notion that a grave injustice took place, but we are far removed — generations removed — from those who were directly impacted,” he said. “That’s why I want to hear suggestions about some other approach, or some approach that is fair and acceptable.”

“I voted for the reparations for those who were interned in the Japanese American internment camps, but these were specific people who were wronged, and they and their families benefited from our decision. This is a bigger challenge,” he added.

The legislation sponsored by Booker and Jackson Lee would establish a 13-member commission to examine the role of the federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery and recommend “appropriate remedies.”

The president would appoint three members, the Speaker of the House would appoint three members, and the president pro tempore of the Senate would appoint one member.

The other six members would be selected from “the major civil society and reparations organizations that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice,” which would likely tilt the commission strongly in favor of substantial monetary reparations.

Yahoo Finance in June estimated the legislation, if enacted, could cost as much as $17.1 trillion.

William Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University and expert on reparations, told The New York Times in May that about 30 million Americans could be eligible for compensation.

The issue has become more prominent in Washington since even a few months ago, when Booker introduced his legislation in early April.

As recently as late June, Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTrump administration urges Congress to reauthorize NSA surveillance program The Hill's Morning Report - More talk on guns; many questions on Epstein's death Juan Williams: We need a backlash against Big Tech MORE (Calif.) suggested the thorny issue was “better left alone” or refused to comment about it altogether.

But Schumer’s statement this week in support of studying reparations sent a clear message to the Senate Democratic Conference that the issue cannot be avoided.

Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenators ask for committee vote on 'red flag' bills after shootings Senate Democrats demand Trump order review of White House security clearances Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador MORE (D-R.I.), who declined to comment a few weeks ago on the proposal to study reparations, said Wednesday that reparations are “something we should consider” and that he would take a look at legislation to study them.

Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleySchumer backs Pelosi as impeachment roils caucus Schumer backs up Pelosi's resistance to impeachment inquiry Murray move raises impeachment pressure on Schumer MORE (D-Ore.) joined as a co-sponsor to the bill Tuesday.

“I’m supportive of study. I think there’s a lot of complex questions that I think the commission might be able to shed a little light on, so I think it makes sense to hold a conversation,” he said.

But Merkley added that the issue “doesn’t come up very often” in his home state of Oregon, where only 2 percent of the population is African American.

Harris told NPR in March that many African Americans suffer from “untreated and undiagnosed trauma” that can be traced back to slavery and discrimination and argued “you need to put resources and direct resources — extra resources — into those communities that have experienced that trauma.”

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Her position reflects the evolution of the Democratic Party in recent years.

When Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaForget conventional wisdom — Bernie Sanders is electable 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care Obama shares summer reading list MORE, the nation’s first black president, ran for the Oval Office in 2008, he came out against monetary reparations.

He voiced concern in a candidate questionnaire submitted to the NAACP that “reparations would be an excuse for some to say ‘we’ve paid our debt’ and to avoid the much harder work of enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing; the much harder work of making sure that our schools are not separate and unequal; the much harder work of providing job training programs and rehabilitating young men coming out of prison every year.”

Eleven years later, Democratic senators are saying it’s a topic that deserves serious legislative  attention.

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOvernight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies Democrats, environmentalists blast Trump rollback of endangered species protections MORE (D-Mass.), a bill co-sponsor, said the matter is “something that we absolutely have to put on the agenda” so that Congress “can understand the whole history of the issue.”