Editor’s Note: LZ Granderson is a journalist and political analyst. He was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University. He is the Sports and Culture Columnist for the Los Angeles Times and co-host of ESPN LA 710’s “Mornings With Keyshawn, LZ and Travis.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @lzgranderson. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Wolf Blitzer had a fascinating exchange during a recent CNN town hall about a word that Sanders chose not to say: reparations.
Chioma Iwuoha, the audience member who raised the question of justice for African-Americans, used the word. So did Blitzer, as he pressed Sanders for an answer. But Sanders, who spoke of addressing institutionalized racism and socioeconomic disparities, avoided the term.
Maybe he knows that polling shows it’s an unpopular idea, one that experts say could cost trillions. Or maybe he was being sincere when he asked Blitzer, “What does that mean?”
I’m not a Sanders fan, but I will say the senator asks a legitimate question.
And while his response left some liberals disappointed, I found it refreshing that he refused to just say he supported a word without a clear definition just so black folks would clap.
Let me be clear: I believe generational wealth accumulated by white people over centuries of systemic racism is directly connected to a significant number of obstacles impeding economic progress for African-Americans, and moral progress for the country.
For example, the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farmers and domestic workers, two occupations that were predominantly black, while the Wagner Act of 1935 allowed unions to exclude minorities.
So as FDR worked to uplift white Americans from the depths of the Great Depression, his policies not only made it legal to leave black people behind, they enabled whites to pass wealth down to their children while their black counterparts depended on their children for help in their later years.
And this cycle went on for decades. Another example of the long term effects of systemic racism came via housing, where less than 2% of $120 billion worth of government-backed home loans were awarded to minorities because the appraisal system that was used identified integrated communities as high risk. This went on from 1934 to 1962.
Sanders was born in 1941, just in case you want to dismiss all of this systemic racism stuff as a practice far back in the nation’s rearview. In fact, the Washington Post recently published an in-depth analysis of how discrimination and policy rollbacks by the Trump Administration have led to a decline in black homeownership. (And before you start blaming Republicans for everything, keep in mind Democratic state lawmaker Mary Ann Lisanti, of Maryland, is currently on an apology tour after referring, in January, to a majority black county as a “n—– district.”)
In any case, there is hard data available to support my belief that reparations as a way to close the wealth gap is a conversation worth having.
But like so many, I am unclear of how to define a reparations solution.
Is it some version of 40 acres and a mule, a promise made to freed men after the Civil War, but then broken by President Andrew Johnson? Is it some variation of Sen. Cory Booker’s plan to give all newborns of low-income households a $1,000 bond, and add up to $2,000 annually until age 18? Is it a lump sum to anyone of African descent? Something else?
Last week Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw her support behind a bill introduced last year by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, that would set up a commission to study slavery reparations for the black community.
“We have to reduce the disparity in income in our country,” Pelosi said. “We have to reduce the disparity in access to education in an affordable way in our country, reduce the health disparities in our country … so while we’re studying how we deal with the reparations issue, there’s plenty we can do to improve the quality of life of many people in our country.”
Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro is being celebrated for his support of reparations to redress America’s “original sin.” He told Steve Kornacki on MSNBC: “We compensate people if we take their property. Shouldn’t we compensate people if they were property, sanctioned by the state?… If I’m president, what I said was that I would establish a task force to look at how that (reparations) might be done.”
What the hell is clear about any of this?
Weeks before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said this in a speech: “at the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm; not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms; not only that, today, many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”
He was speaking of systemic racism and the need for reparations in 1968, but what’s the dollar figure on the check descendants of slaves should be awarded today? How does it get funded? And more pragmatically: can a candidate for president win by promising to only give black people trillions of dollars without losing the support of working-class whites?
Because, be not mistaken, reparations aren’t help for the general population. They are payment for an overdue bill with interest to one specific customer. A proposal 2020 candidates know will rub a lot of voters the wrong way.
In an interview with the Grio, Sen. Kamala Harris spoke of her LIFT the Middle Class Act, which would offer cash payment to most middle-class families, not just descendants of slaves. She explained: a policy that benefits everyone will ultimately benefit black people. “Let’s really be clear about that. 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.”
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All of this recognition of the problem is not going to disappear from the campaign trail anytime soon, so there will be more opportunities for Harris and others to fine-tune their versions of reparations. But I tend to believe that their policies will ultimately more or less mirror what Sanders proposes. Which is why I don’t have a problem with him not using the “R” word.
He has expressed an understanding of and a desire to address the issues that rest along racial lines. If he follows through on this campaign promise, does it really matter what he calls it?
This commentary was modified from a version published earlier to update the affiliations noted in LZ Granderson’s Editor’s Note.