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The case for reparations in the US emerges from a surprising quarter

Few events in the past three years have been capable of turning the conversation away from Donald Trump, but the emerging Democratic presidential field has proven surprisingly effective in doing just that. Political analysis increasingly revolves around ideas like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and universal childcare. But Democrats are just changing conversations — they’re changing minds.

Columnist David Brooks .Credit:AP

Nowhere was this more visible — or more startling — than when conservative columnist David Brooks came out on Friday in favour of reparations. Long considered a radical policy proposal, one few political candidates dare to broach, in recent weeks, Democratic candidates have begun talking about reparations as a way to address America’s racial wealth gap while also acknowledging the darkest parts of American history. And while legislation securing reparations is still a long shot, that the conversation is both happening and converting skeptics is the most surprising development of the early primary season.

Reparation for slavery began almost as soon as the Civil War ended. Formerly enslaved people themselves put the issue on the table with the slogan “Forty Acres and a Mule", a call for the land and tools necessary to achieve economic independence. In an era when the federal government was handing out land left and right — to railroad companies, white settlers, and immigrants — there would have been little real cost to the government, and immeasurable gains for the newly freed people of the American South.

The land and tools never came: white southerners feared nothing more than black independence, and so resisted any effort to liberate African Americans from white landowners. New laws quickly established a system of sharecropping that continued to deny black southerners land and fair wages.

The rise of Jim Crow laws, which denied African Americans access to political and economic opportunities, meant that state and federal government continued to steal the property and labour of black Americans. This was especially true when it came to housing, a form of discrimination not limited to the South. The federal government routinely and systematically denied home loans to prospective black buyers, and until 1948, real estate agents included restrictive covenants in housing deeds, forbidding white home owners from selling their residences to black buyers.

The housing component of Jim Crow matters perhaps even more than the job and wage discrimination, because in the United States in the 20th century, home ownership has been one of the most important sources of intergenerational wealth in the United States. The inability of African Americans to access this wealth is the main driver of the racial wealth gap. While black families earn $57 for every $100 that white families earn, they have only $5 of wealth for every $100 white families have.

There are policies that can start to address the gap in earnings, but only reparations can begin to address the gap in wealth. And that’s where the conversation about reparations begins: how to begin to make amends for the wealth denied to generations of black Americans?

Comprehensive reparations policies exist, and there will be time to discuss those. But the very fact of the conversation is itself revolutionary, because it rests on an agreement that the federal government has inflicted harm on African Americans that continues to materially harm them to this day. And while to some people that may be obvious, it has never been a consensus viewpoint in the United States.

Senator Kamala Harris.Credit:AP

The growing conversation about reparations owes quite a bit to the growing diversity in the ranks of both journalism and the Democratic field. In 2008 Ta-Nehisi Coates began writing for The Atlantic, and in 2014, he wrote that year’s most important piece of journalism, an award-winning article called “The Case for Reparations”. It was the first major piece in a mainstream outlet that took the case for reparations beyond slavery and into the century of sanctioned discrimination that lasted until the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s.

While that conversation has remained a lively one in black political and intellectual circles, it largely disappeared from the national debate in the intervening years. But in a recent interview, Kamala Harris, an African-American senator from California who is currently running for president, endorsed reparations.

An enterprising reporter followed up with the other Democratic candidates, and two more, Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro, endorsed the idea as well, putting it squarely on the agenda for the primary campaign ahead.

All of that is well and good, and consistent with how a party’s politics change over time, especially as its demographics change. But the real twist to this story is David Brooks. A longtime conservative columnist for The New York Times, and one of the people that left-leaning Americans love to mock, his latest column in support of reparations was genuinely stunning. He confessed he had been dismissive of the idea, but once he dug into it and learned more, he recognised not just its wisdom but its necessity.

Brooks’s change, and his willingness to talk about it openly, is not very common in American politics these days. But it speaks to how surprising politics can be, and how quickly ideas, once relegated to the fringes, can become genuine policy options.

Nicole Hemmer is a regular columnist based in the United States.

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