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 SchumerTrump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president Impeachment has been a dud for Democrats Trump insults Democrats, calls on followers to watch Fox News ahead of impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday told a small group of reporters that he supports legislation sponsored by Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSenate Dems to Pompeo: Comments about NPR reporter 'insulting and contemptuous' Black caucus in Nevada: 'Notion that Biden has all of black vote is not true' The Hill's 12:30 Report: House managers to begin opening arguments on day two MORE (D-N.J.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeePatrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' The US should work to counter India's actions against the people of Kashmir Sheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade 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 HarrisHarris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' Panel: Is Kamala Harris a hypocrite for mulling a Joe Biden endorsement? The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Des Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters MORE (I-Vt.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial Moore defends Sanders's reputation: 'We don't want the fake, and the phony and the fraudulent' MORE (D-Minn.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandGOP-Biden feud looms over impeachment trial Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial 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 TrumpKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Kaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court Louise Linton, wife of Mnuchin, deletes Instagram post in support of Greta Thunberg 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 DurbinDemocrats see Mulvaney as smoking gun witness at Trump trial Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment 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 FeinsteinCalifornia Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight 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 ReedOvernight Defense: Veterans group seeks Trump apology for comments on brain injuries | Pentagon says dozens of troops suffered traumatic injuries after attack | Trump unveils Space Force logo Dozens of US troops suffered traumatic brain injuries after Iran missile strikes Six mayors making a difference 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 MerkleySenate Dems to Pompeo: Comments about NPR reporter 'insulting and contemptuous' Environmentalists, Oregon senators oppose DOT increasing transport of natural gas by rail Senate Democrat says he is concerned intelligence community is 'bending' Soleimani presentations 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 ObamaKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Former NYT correspondent rips Democrats' 'selective use' of constitutional violations Obama portraits leaving National Portrait Gallery to tour museums across the country 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 MarkeySenate Dems to Pompeo: Comments about NPR reporter 'insulting and contemptuous' Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill Twitter tells facial-recognition app maker to stop collecting its data 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.”