williamson debate 7.30
Williamson: Economic gap comes from a great injustice
01:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and author of the book, “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Marianne Williamson is not going be the president of the United States. She’s not going to introduce ground-breaking or thorough policy proposals. She’s not going to make our political debates more rational or intellectual or even particularly lucid.

Jill Filipovic

But every once in a while, she’s a voice of conscience who uses her improbable position in the Democratic primaries to push the other candidates on difficult questions. That happened again at the Democratic debate last night, when she insisted on reparations for what she rightly described as “250 years of slavery … followed by another 100 years of domestic terrorism.”

That the question of how to properly atone for slavery and segregation has emerged at all in the race for the Democratic nomination is a huge victory for racial justice advocates. Just a few years ago, the question of reparations was largely relegated to the academy. Now, five years after Ta-Nehisi Coates made a compelling case for reparations in the pages of The Atlantic, the issue is getting top billing on CNN, and every candidate is expected to have an answer.

This proves tricky for Democrats. Their furthest-left voters (myself included) cheer for reparations, but the whole idea remains deeply unpopular nationally, including among Democratic voters. As a result, Democrats usually skirt the issue – they either avoid it entirely, or they say, as Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren have, that they would sign a bill authorizing a commission to study whether and how to grant reparations. Only Warren takes it a modest step further: Her affordable-housing bill offers specific, targeted help for communities that were intentionally destabilized by racist redlining policies.

And then there’s Marianne Williamson, who proposes a $200-500 billion reparations package, with the funds to be distributed over 20 years, as determined by a council of African-American leaders.

This plan is unlikely, to say the least. But it’s powerful that Williamson is putting it out there, and staking out a leftward post on the reparations question. (Less impressive, and worth flagging for anyone who thinks Williamson’s debate performance should make her a serious contender, is her long record of science denialism and hyper-individualism under the guise of spirituality and self-help).

One great myth of politics is that politicians chase voters, and should shape their policy proposals to what voters say they want. In reality, good leaders lead – they guide voters and convince them. Just look at Donald Trump and the Republican party more broadly: Their policy positions, like massive tax cuts for the rich and undercutting health care, are hugely unpopular, at least according to what voters say they want. But the Republicans have been excellent at moving voters along with them, and at casting their noxious policies as beneficial.

Reparations isn’t a new idea, but it’s newly emerged in public political debates. And new ideas always take a while to gain in popularity. Polling on reparations also speaks primarily to the unpopularity of cash payouts, but that isn’t largely what’s being proposed.

Advocates for reparations know that cutting a check to every African-American family in America is unlikely to be politically popular and may not achieve the broader goals of reparations, which include an end to de facto segregation and vast, institutionalized racial inequality. The polls, then, do not tell the whole story of how a thoughtful, detailed and targeted reparations program could be received.

It’s also entirely possible that reparations will never be popular, but they are still the right thing to do. The issue comes up in debates in part because it’s so controversial and provides a point of differentiation between candidates. The question of reparations is not, as Mitch McConnell says, irrelevant since no one alive today owned slaves. Reparations are not just about slavery: They are about a longstanding system of giving benefits to white Americans while discriminating (often opaquely and with plausible deniability) against black Americans.

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    The question now shouldn’t be whether our country has an obligation to take account of the sins of slavery, segregation and racial terrorism. It’s how we do it, for whom, and how swiftly.

    Marianne Williamson, who has no experience in elected office, seems remarkably incurious about the ins and outs of constructing actual political policies and frankly shouldn’t be on the debate stage, is not the right person to answer this question. But whoever wins the presidency must address it. And Williamson, at least, planted one leftward marker toward which the other candidates may eventually walk.