It’s Official: Bernie Sanders Has a Reparations Problem in the 2020 Primary
On Monday night, CNN hosted a Town Hall event in Washington D.C. with 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Leading into the coverage, political pundits and journalists discussed the recent announcement by the Sanders campaign that they have raised $10 million in less than a week since officially announcing Bernie’s run to the White House. This eye-popping number has caught the attention of other candidates and the media alike, and some have noted that candidates in the modern political era who have led in fundraising often go on to win their party’s nomination. But in a Democratic Party that is becoming increasingly diverse and (rightfully) more focused on issues of race inequities and racial justice than it ever has been, Bernie Sanders is not only not on the forefront on an issue that has slowly garnered more attention than in past presidential elections — he’s behind the ball.
The topic of reparations in the United States is not a new one, in fact, a discussion on reparations started decades before the 20th Century, just shortly after the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. In 1865, the first official call for what could be considered as reparations were given via Special Field Orders №15, which set aside land along the Atlantic coast in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina to be given out in parcels of no more than 40 acres of tillable land for a family of formerly enslaved Black people. These military orders were given “to assure the harmony of action in the area of operations” in an effort to address the many newly freed enslaved people who were present in the former Confederate South. Notably, Special Field Orders №15 (SFO15) were explicit in mentioning that these orders were not intended to provide permanent land use for formerly enslaved people, stating:
These orders were only meant to temporarily provide formerly enslaved people the opportunity to begin building financial security however they deemed appropriate. SFO15 stated that “domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence” and “encouraged” the “young and able-bodied” Black men to enlist in the military to help “to contribute their share towards maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.” Ultimately, the vast majority of formerly enslaved people would not receive the benefits outlined in SFO15, as President Andrew Johnson, who assumed the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, reversed the military orders just months after it was issued. President Johnson returned seized land to white landowners who took a loyalty pledge to the United States.
Fast-forward to the modern political era. In 1988, Jesse Jackson ran for president, seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party. Among other progressive policies, Jackson’s platform included reparations for descendants of enslaved people. Jackson’s presidential run in ’88 did not boast big-name endorsements from a vast array of elected officials, but it did include the endorsement of the mayor of a small city in Vermont — Burlington mayor, Bernie Sanders. The Observer notes that Sanders “praised Mr. Jackson for uniting disenfranchised voters and focusing on issues such as wealth inequality and racial injustice.” This is particularly interesting because when asked about reparations while campaigning in Iowa during his 2016 presidential campaign, Sanders said the issue of reparations was “very divisive.” Without reliable polling data on reparations in 1988, it’s safe to assume that reparations was an issue that, at the time, was not overly popular with the general public. According to polling released in 2016, The Silent Generation and Baby Boomers did not support reparations for slavery by an overwhelming margin. Not even the generation that holds the warmest views on reparations, Millennials, have a majority view on the topic; 40% of Millennials were in favor of reparations while 49% were against reparations. There is no evidence that Sanders opposed Jackson’s support for reparations during his 1988 campaign, despite the issue being as, if not more, divisive at the time. Yet, when given the opportunity to not only endorse another candidate in favor of reparations, but actually be the one to champion reparations, Sanders has mostly dismissed the very idea.
Reparations, according to polling, are still not popular. Despite this, there are already three major Democratic presidential nominees who have voiced an openness for having a more nuanced discussion on the virtue of reparations. In a conversation with “The Breakfast Club”, a popular syndicated radio show, Senator Kamala Harris agreed with hosts that reparations were necessary, later saying to The New York Times that “we have to be honest that people in this country do not start from the same place or have access to the same opportunities.” Senator Elizabeth Warren made explicit comments on the topic in a statement to Reuters, stating that “we must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences including undermining the ability of Black families to build wealth in America for generations.” Former HUD Secretary under President Obama, Julián Castro, said in an interview on Hardball, “I have long believed, this country should resolve its original sin of slavery and that one of the ways we should consider doing that is through reparations for people who are the descendants of slaves.” Castro also pledged that if he was elected he would establish a “task force” for slavery reparations.
While these candidates have not offered more specific policy platforms for reparations, providing neither what reparations would look like, approximate cost, or how they would determine who would be eligible for what types of benefits, it’s encouraging nonetheless that they have shown an openness to invite the discussion. They are showing some leadership among the current field of Democratic candidates on an issue that the majority of the Democratic field has not or will not support — including Sanders. What makes Sanders continual resistance to supporting reparations even more frustrating is that it is inconsistent with his very reason for not supporting it. Sanders has stated that the issue is divisive — and it is — but Sanders has not been scared away from taking unpopular stands on other issues in the past.
For example, Sanders’ first known public support of gay marriage did not come until 2009, when he spoke out in favor of gay marriage after the legislature in Vermont overrode a veto by Vermont’s governor which ultimately ended in the State of Vermont recognizing gay marriage. At the time, gay marriage was still largely underwater in the polling, showing that only 37% of Americans favored same-sex marriage, while over half of the country still opposed same-sex marriage, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. Available polling shows that reparations are within about 10-points of the favorable/unfavorable ratings of that of polling for gay marriage in 2009. Sanders was not deterred by unpopular polling when showing support for gay marriage in 2009; the issue was still a topic of much debate in the United States at that time. Sanders supported gay marriage because it was the right thing to do. Why has Sanders shown such an unwillingness to take the same moral stand on reparations?
During his CNN Town Hall event, Sanders said that we must “do everything we can” to address racial wealth disparities, but then focused his answer on poverty reduction legislation, conflating the topics of racial wealth disparity and economic inequality without a willingness to explicitly address providing reparations to those affected by the dark legacy of slavery. Sanders has shown a propensity to reframe issues of racial inequities as issues of economic class. It would be accurate to say that by addressing the pressing issues that most negatively impact the working class, it will also assist the many Black people who are part of the poor, working-class, and middle-class in this country. But the problem here is that it doesn’t specifically go to the heart of the question of reparations, which is whether or not we, as a country, should provide those who have been affected by the deeply embedded and lasting effects of slavery with some form of payment.
Sanders should champion reparations not because it’s popular or unpopular, or politically expedient while running in a Democratic primary, or to perhaps come across as an independent outsider from the Democratic Party, but Sanders should support reparations because it’s simply the right thing to do. I don’t expect Sanders, or any other candidate for that matter, to have all the answers at this moment about how reparations would be awarded. It’s a complex issue that has no single, correct answer, which is why it should be studied. This is exactly why Sanders and other Democratic presidential candidates should encourage Democratic House members to co-sponsor H.R. 40, legislation that has been brought to the floor by Rep. Jackson Lee, which would establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals.
Sanders must put his ego aside, admit that he was too quick to dismiss reparations, and challenge himself and his policy staff to dig deeper into what a policy on reparations might look like and present it to voters. Reparations probably won’t be the deciding policy that determines whether or not he captures the Democratic nomination, but it certainly doesn’t help his credibility as a true champion on issues of racial inequity, and further fuels the narrative that Sanders too frequently boils racial issues down to matters of class and attempts to view them through a lens of colorblindness. Sanders has been willing to take unpopular stances in the past on a number of issues because he believed it was the right thing to do, and he should have the same zeal in supporting reparations.
Reprinted from The Medium, Feb 27, 2019.