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Rhetoric on Reparations on the Presidential Campaign Trail

Before we dive into the everlasting legacy of slavery in America, let’s start off by playing a quick guessing game.  During a speech early in 2019, this candidate stated, “I have the most progressive record of anybody running…” In August, they stated, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”  Most recently, this candidate’s response to a debate question regarding race concluded with, “It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, make sure that kids hear words.” 

You guessed it (hopefully); I’m referring to your 2020 Democratic frontrunner and former Vice President, Joseph Biden.  Not only has his 40-year career been filled with confusing and often times racist comments, but Biden has also continuously stood on the wrong side of history on issues such as the Iraq War, LGBTQ rights, mass incarceration, and more. Biden’s shortcomings became more evident as the debate over slavery reparations jumped into the forefront of the 2020 race in the second quarter of 2019. He struggles with these questions because his acknowledgment of institutional racism and discrimination in America is almost always paired with jabs at the parenting skills and lifestyles of Black Americans. His record player comment refers to the controversial research regarding the apparent “word-gap” between majority and minority children. Apparently In Biden’s eyes, hearing more words, especially during night time vinyl sessions, will help to alleviate the largely economic inequalities throughout America. His ignorance speaks for itself as the word-gap merely serves as a symptom of larger issues.

Biden, however, is not the only candidate to struggle with what to do about reparations.  The topic is not an easy one to resolve. Reparations have been a major talking point amongst candidates, surprising many after Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even Bernie Sanders have been on the record against reparations during their past campaigns. Reparations, in fact, were made after the abolishment of slavery; they were given to slave owners for their loss of property. Although 40 acres and a mule were promised to former slaves, the idea was deemed too radical for the time and later scrapped.

All of the 2020 candidates have acknowledged the serious need to address the issues of economic, social, and judicial inequality for Black and brown communities in America. Whether the mess comes from redlining, privately owned prisons, unequal loan standards, or more indirect barriers to progress such as partisan gerrymandering or unsustainable corporate greed throughout Washington, we all know that change must come. Many candidates believe that the discussion of reparations should be evaluated further. Therefore, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar have signed onto Cory Booker’s reparations bill calling for a commission to study the impacts of slavery and find tangible, 21st-century solutions.  

When asked about their respective plans for improving racial standings and addressing reparations, candidates have frequently referred back to their own general plans that may indeed alleviate some issues facing these communities, but rarely answer the question directly. There is one candidate who has called for a payout for descendants of slaves: Mariane Williamson. She has proposed that the federal government set aside between $200 billion and $500 billion which will be paid in the years following her inauguration.

Thus far, the debate surrounding reparations has been grounded far more in appealing rhetoric than indirect solutions. Resolving conflicts born of the slave trade which built the nation into the global power it is today is certainly a nuanced and difficult task. However, as communities of color and many descendants of slaves fight battles of economic inequality and injustice in many facets of life, Senator Booker summarizes the conversation well as he argues that the debate “cannot become just a political box-checking exercise.”