No Democrat Has a Coherent Plan For Reparations, Bernie’s Just Sounds the Worst


The issue of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow has become central to the 2020 Democratic presidential race, and while none of the candidates have put forth an actual plan for reparations, Bernie Sanders has taken the majority of the criticism for his failure on the issue.

The battle over reparations escalated this weekend when former Obama HUD Secretary Julian Castro attacked Sanders for dismissing direct payment of reparations, but it has been simmering for several weeks. While fellow 2020 candidates Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) staked out positions that were ostensibly pro-reparations, Sanders… did not.

During a February town hall meeting on CNN, Sanders was awkwardly pressed on the issue by Wolf Blitzer, and tried to suggest he was in agreement with Warren. But when he was asked for a fifth time if he supports reparations, Sanders concluded by saying “it depends on what the word means,” and begged for a subject change. Watch that clip above, from CNN.

Several days later, during an appearance on ABC’s The View, co-host Sunny Hostin asked Sanders about reparations, and Sanders told her “I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”

Then, during an extensive interview on the syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club, co-host Charlamagne Tha God asked Sanders about reparations, and the candidate again flatly ruled out “writ(ing) a check,” instead proposing a series of race-neutral policies that would benefit “distressed communities,” and added that those would include “white communities, there are distressed Latino communities.”

It was the “write a check” line which Castro zeroed in on to attack Sanders, arguing that many of Bernie’s other favorite policy proposals involve “writing a big check.”

But in that same interview, Castro himself admitted that direct payments to American Descendants of Slavery “may or may not be the best way to address it,” which exposes an aspect of this debate that is being overlooked by many in the political media.

Charlamagne Tha God touched on this when he asked Sanders, during his Breakfast Club radio interview, “Do you think Democrats really believe in reparations for African Americans or is it just a good talking point for this campaign cycle?”

Sanders refused to attack his rivals but has also repeatedly questioned what candidates like Warren actually mean when they express support for reparations, and it’s a good question.

Warren has expressed support for reparations in several interviews, but the remedies she’s proposing thus far are not race-based policies, instead focusing on community-based relief that sounds a lot like what Sanders is proposing.

Harris was also asked by Charlamagne Tha God “You are for some type of reparations?”, and she replied “Yes I am.”

But when TheGrio asked for something more specific, Harris cited the LIFT Act, which would give a tax credit to all qualified Americans, which she also mentioned during the Breakfast Club interview.

“So I’m not gonna sit here and say I’m gonna do something that’s only gonna benefit Black people. No. Because whatever benefits that Black family will benefit that community and society as a whole and the country, right?” she told the site.

As he said in his CNN hit this past weekend, Castro has promised a “task force to look at” reparations, and “how that would be done.”

But his comments on CNN, that direct payments “may or may not be” the best way to address disparities, leaves open the possibility of policies like those that Harris, Warren, and Sanders propose. And a task force is not a plan, is not legislation. There is currently a bill in the House of Representatives, HR 40, that has 29 Democratic co-sponsors, and would create a commission to develop reparations policies and proposals.

Longshot Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson has been the most specific about a reparations plan, but her proposal isn’t all that specific either. She proposes a “$200 billion – $500 billion plan of reparations for slavery, the money to be disbursed over a period of twenty years. An esteemed council of African-American leaders would determine the educational and economic projects to which the money would be given.”

That’s also not reparations.

So why is Bernie getting beaten up so hard on this issue, when his position is substantively so similar to those of his opponents? There are likely several reasons for this, including the fact that he has not come up with a better answer to this question in the two-plus years since the last time it came up.

During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton‘s campaign attacked Sanders over the issue of reparations, even though Clinton herself did not support reparations, because of the way Sanders dismissed the issue.

Sanders was asked if he would support reparations if he were president, and he replied “No, I don’t think so. First of all, the likelihood of getting through a Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive.”

The first part of his answer echoes the line that Castro attacked, since many of his plans would face problems surviving Congress intact. And the second one seems to suggest that supporters of reparations are the ones doing the dividing, rather than those who refuse to address the wrongs that are still reverberating today. Sanders was correct that polling shows support for reparations is low, but his framing was poor, at best.

Several weeks later, Sanders was pressed on the issue at a forum on race and found himself bellowing “I’ve said ‘black’ fifty times!” to a black woman who had asked him for race-specific policies but had instead gotten the same “distressed communities” line that Sanders is using today.

At the same time, Sanders’ opponents seem to be benefiting from this issue by calling things “reparations” that aren’t actually reparations. To a certain extent, this contrast between them and Sanders is fair, because a willingness to say they are on the side of those who support reparations is significant and new.

But it’s a situation that cannot hold for long if this issue continues to come up, and it will. Warren has a CNN town hall moderated by Jake Tapper scheduled for Monday, and she will doubtless be asked how her position differs substantively from Sanders’, beyond her willingness to call her non-reparations policies “reparations.”

The other pro-reparations candidates can similarly expect to be quizzed on the subject, and eventually, the other dozen-or-so candidates will have to weigh in, as well. Those candidates will have to weigh the political benefits of expressing support for reparations during a Democratic primary, versus the possible costs during a general election.

The likely result will be policy positions similar to those of Clinton and Barack Obama and the other candidates, but with varying degrees of verbal association to reparations. Some will try to cast their proposals as reparations, while others will create distance from reparations while lauding the goals of the movement, and maybe a few will actually back reparations. We’ll see.

Unfortunately for Sanders, none of this will unring the bell he has already rung, but maybe that’s the point. His rhetorical distance from reparations may sound “bad” to some voters in the Democratic base, but not as bad as embracing reparations might sound to others.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

Filed Under: