THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Most Americans still oppose reparations

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

Former President Donald Trump called the notion of reparations for slavery “unusual” and “interesting.” He quickly added, though, in case anyone mistook this for sympathy for the reparations call, that he didn’t “see it happening.”

Editor’s Note: This column is the second in a two-part series from Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s forthcoming Middle Passage Press book, “Reparations!” addressing the debate about compensation to American slave descendants.

In June 2019 the reparations issue had become such a hot-button, buzz topic that Trump felt even he had to say something about it in an interview. He wasn’t the only top Republican to weigh in on the issue.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was even more blunt. Said McConnell, reparations isn’t “a good idea.” He dredged up the, by then, set-in-stone prime reason immediately shouted by reparations opponents: that it made no sense to shell out billions in taxpayer dollars for slavery that ended in 1865. Or, as McConnell put it, “something that happened 150 years ago.”

He didn’t stop there. He named the Civil War, lots of civil rights laws, and even tossed in the election of President Barack Obama as more than ample proof that the nation had more than paid its debt. For McConnell this was a mea culpa and atonement enough for slavery. 

Both Trump and McConnell gave a strong hint at just what the fate of a reparations study’s outcome would be if they had their say. A cursory look at the 14 co-sponsors of Sen. Cory Booker’s bill to explore reparations confirmed that. Not one Republican senator signed on as a co-sponsor. It wasn’t just Republicans, though, who were wary of the issue.

Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden in June 2019 cast a jittery gaze over his back shoulder at potential white, conservative Democrats and independents in the crucial swing states. He did not dare risk alienating them, and a quick jump onto the reparations bandwagon might have done that. 

Biden almost out-Trumped Trump and out-McConnelled McConnell in throwing ice water on reparations. Biden told the Washington Post, “I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

But two years later in February 2021, now safely ensconced in the White House, Biden cautiously changed his tune and said he’d back the Democrats’ congressional reparations study proposal. But even here he hedged his bet, quickly noting that a study was one thing, while signing an actual bill to pay reparations was an entirely different matter. 

Biden could still read the poll numbers: A scant 15% of whites favored reparations payment; overall, less than 30% of Americans favored payments. He said no more about it.

There was no guesswork involved with Biden’s silence. The many polls taken on the pros and cons of reparations payments for slavery in the decades since Rep. John Conyers introduced his 1989 bill show one constant. The overwhelming majority of whites oppose slavery payments.

The standard answers to why there should not be payments for slavery did not form in a vacuum, nor were they solely driven by racial bigotry or ignorance on the issue, though much of that is there in abundance. The opposition has been undergirded by a seemingly solid and reasoned intellectually and politically reasoned viewpoint. This oppositional view has been honed, refined and sharpened over time by conservative think tanks and analysts. 

The arguments on the surface appear both factual and persuasive and make perfectly good sense to many. It’s certainly true the U.S. government, the Constitution, bolstered by an avalanche of laws for a century, encoded segregation, inequality and gross exploitation of Blacks.

But the case is made that the same government also radically revised the Constitution with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. It passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, as well as successive amendments and revisions that strengthened civil rights since the 1950s.

This was enhanced by legions of court rulings and decisions strengthening civil rights protections, banning job, housing and lending discrimination, and promoting pay equity and affirmative action programs. These measures are repeatedly posed as transformative legal and institutional measures designed to redress the decades of Jim Crow racial disparities.

Also, opponents insist it’s a myth that all whites benefited from Black exclusion and racial disparities. Poor whites, immigrants and other non-whites also have been subject to economic exclusion, social and racial disparities and impoverishment for decades with no governmental helping-hand to alleviate their plight.

Trump and McConnell did not need to cite the litany of stock arguments against reparations. They simply cited the impracticality of it and the more compelling fallback retort that the decades of government action and redress of racial bias and disparities have done much to close the economic gap between Blacks and whites.

That, in turn, has been the engine that has enabled Blacks to smash through the racial barriers to opportunity. Therefore, they have gotten their reparations and then some, opponents have argued. The majority of Americans agree, if polls are to be believed, and that includes many Blacks.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.

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