Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a 2020 presidential hopeful, at a campaign...

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a 2020 presidential hopeful, at a campaign stop on Friday at Allen University in Columbia, S.C. Credit: AP/Meg Kinnard

The issue of reparations for black Americans in acknowledgment of the United States’ long history of slave labor has been a key topic of discussion among Democrats in the 2020 race for the White House. Here’s a look at the recent events and national conversations that may be feeding momentum toward a reparations program and the political viability of a reparations commission: 

What are reparations?

An atonement to black Americans for the generations-long enslavement of their ancestors. Advocates say reparations would help to close the racial economic gap that resulted from Jim Crow laws and state-sanctioned discrimination after the time of slavery. Reparations have been described as direct financial restitution or funds toward education, housing and other programs.

Why have reparations come into the national discussion?

Democratic candidates for president, some responding to questions in interviews or at forums and others volunteering their positions without being prompted, have voiced support for a national conservation about reparations. In Congress, Texas Democrat Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s bill to create a commission to consider reparations has nearly three dozen co-sponsors. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a 2020 presidential hopeful, has introduced a companion bill.

And earlier this month, Georgetown University students passed a referendum to form a reconciliation fund for descendants of the 272 slaves once sold to sustain the school financially. The student government bill proposes a $27.20 fee per student every semester. It goes next before the board of trustees.

Where are the Democratic candidates for president saying?

Most contenders said they would sign Jackson Lee’s bill, if they are elected president and if it reaches their desk. Former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro said at a CNN town hall that the United States has “never fully addressed in this country the original sin of slavery.”

Few candidates have detailed what a reparations program would look like to them, though long shot contender Marianne Williamson, an author, proposed that $200 billion to $500 billion be set aside over 20 years, with a council of African-Americans determining which educational and economic projects to finance.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told ABC’s “The View” in February he believes there are better ways to right the wrongs “than just writing out a check.” He backs a plan by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to fight persistent poverty in communities, including African-American ones in the South.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has not recently spoken on the topic of reparations.

How politically realistic is a reparations program?

The chances of Jackson Lee’s bill passing in the Democrat-controlled House are greater than of Booker’s in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Jackson Lee’s bill picks up where former Rep. John Conyers left off when he retired in 2007. The bill by Conyers (D-Mich.) never made it out of committee. Jackson Lee’s has backing from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but no vote has been set.

Jackson Lee has circulated a letter among House Democrats to drum up more support, her spokesman Robin Chand said. Its New York sponsors include Rep. Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan and Rep. Gregory Meeks of Queens, whose district includes a sliver of Nassau County.

What would a reparations program potentially look like?

Economist and Duke University professor William Darity said Jackson Lee’s bill would create the same type of commission that preceded reparations for Japanese-Americans.

He has written that one approach would be lump-sum payments to eligible individual black Americans, another would be the establishment of a trust fund to which people could apply for “various asset-building projects” and a third option would be vouchers toward the same goal of redistributing wealth.

Darity told Newsday he believes a reparations program should require that eligible beneficiaries be able to establish that they have at least one enslaved ancestor in the United States and that they for at least 10 years before the program self-identified as black, African-American or Negro.

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