Reparations and Racial Politicking

With the second round of Democratic presidential debates upcoming on July 30-31 and with the ever-increasing support in the Democratic party -- Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer having just added his endorsement -- it  is time to ask for more details concerning reparations, and, specifically, how will eligibility for reparations for African-Americans be determined?

As for racial politicking, the Democratic presidential race is already pointed toward the early primary in South Carolina on February 29 of next year, where black Democratic voters are an even more significant factor than in the national Democratic party.  Black support is crucial to any of the Democratic presidential candidates, of course, but it is likely definitive to the candidacies of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.  And all the Democratic candidates have to do something about the continuing lead of Joe Biden in the polls. Racial politicking is one method they have chosen.

Thus, in the first presidential debates, Kamala Harris’ accused Joe Biden of almost being a racist for not supporting school busing 40 years ago -- while introducing her attack by stating that she was not accusing him of being a racist. Likewise, Cory Booker, already a critic of Biden about race and specifically about Biden’s statements in the first presidential debate, has stated that he may step up that criticism at the next debates. After it was pointed out in a tweet by an obviously  liberal African-American that Harris, the daughter of an Asian Indian mother and Jamaican father, was not an African-American, which was then retweeted by Donald Trump, Jr., the Democratic media together with the other Democratic presidential candidates immediately and vehemently responded that this was an accusation based on birtherism.

Schumer says that “we need to do a lot more” about the “legacy” not just of slavery but also of “Jim Crow.”  With a particular criticism of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who, Schumer says, had “done nothing to combat bigotry,”  Schumer has announced his support for a Senate bill that would establish a commission to study and make recommendations for reparations. All seven Democratic U.S. Senators who are running for president are co-sponsors of the bill.

On June 19, the Democratic-controlled House, with the strong support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, further set the stage for the July 30-31 debates by holding a hearing on  H.R. 40, a House bill identical to the Senate bill, to form a federal commission that would “Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans.” With three members appointed by the speaker, only one appointed by the president pro tempore of the Senate, and three appointed by the president, the result of the “study” is preordained under the current political makeup of the Congress because six additional members of the commission would be appointed from “organizations that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice.”

The leadoff and chief witness in favor of reparations was presidential candidate Cory Booker.  Calling slavery “our nation’s original sin,” Booker said that “racism and white supremacy,” including “federal policies that have intentionally excluded blacks from wealth-building and opportunity,” has caused “damage” that “has endured across generations.” The damage is manifest in “redlined neighborhoods” as well as “racialized violence” that persists “to this very day.”

Thus, reparations is now a major public issue, presidential campaign issue, and, in light of Mitch McConnell’s statement that slavery is  “[s]omething that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible,” a major disagreement between the two political parties.  So, will any questions seeking details about reparations be asked of the candidates at the upcoming debates?  How will reparations be determined and what will be the cost?  Who will be eligible?  How “African” and how “American” will you have to be the recipient of “African-American” reparations? Will you have to be an actual descendant of slaves? What about other black Americans like Somali-born U.S. representative Ilhan Omar, who came to this country in 1992?  Still more pertinent: the district that she represents includes Minneapolis, where a large number of latter-day Somali immigrants live.  Would those black Africans be eligible?

Should descendants of slaveowners be required to personally pay reparations? How much land in the South today can be traced back to slave plantations?  Beto O”Rourke has said that he is a descendant of slaveholders.  And Kamala Harris’ father previously said that she is a descendant of Jamaican slaveholders.

The House hearing on June 19 was a major media event, but these kinds of questions were notably avoided.  On July 6, Kamala Harris proposed a $100 billion reparations plan that would “give black families a real shot at homeownership” by providing federal grants of up to $25,000 for home down payments to counter the effects of redlining, that is, the practice of discrimination in housing and housing loans based on neighborhoods.  Harris has not provided any more details. Elizabeth Warren has made the same kind of proposal. Redlining has been illegal since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

On July 11, Pete Buttigieg offered a great deal of detail about reparations in his own Douglass Plan involving “health equity zones,” housing, and civil rights “that focuses on Black Americans.”  It includes hiring preferences for blacks as health care providers and in public education, funding of “underrepresented” entrepreneurs, free college, and cancellations of college loans “lower income students,” as well as comprehensive decriminalization. In the part of his proposal that he has labeled the Community Homestead Act, the federal government in certain “pilot cities” would subsidize the purchase of home sites for “a current resident of any historically redlined or racially-segregated area.” Such residents would be given “absolute ownership of land’” together with a subsidized 10-year loan.

With three of the top five Democratic presidential candidates focusing reparations on housing, land, and “zones.” it is only natural to make a comparison to Indian reservations today. Can the maintenance of the reservations by the federal government with the host of reservation-based federal programs administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and free health care under the Indian Health Service (Medicaid for all!) serve as some kind of model for reparations for African Americans?

As Elizabeth Warren well knows, membership in an Indian tribe is determined by blood.  Individual tribes have the authority to decide the exact blood quantum, but, overall, a person must  have “one-half to one-sixteenth amount of a tribe’s blood to be “enrolled” as a member.  Will this serve as some kind of precedent to make distinctions among descendants of slaves, African-Americans, black Americans, and recent African immigrants?

Since reparations has the support of the two most powerful Democrats in the Congress and has become such a major issue in the Democratic presidential campaign, it has to be wondered why the Democrat-controlled House doesn’t hold hearings to do the “study” and then come up with a complete reparations plan this Fall.  Regardless, questions about reparations would seem to be a necessary part of the July 30-31 debates.

Thomas R. Ascik has written on a wide range of legal and connstitutional issues.

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