In terms of the size of the African American population and the percentage of that population registered to vote, we cannot, alone, elect any candidate for POTUS. Our lack of voting for a particular candidate, however, can assuredly help defeat that candidate. The percentage of African Americans voting in the 2016 election was substantially down from 2012 and 2008, and that helped Mrs. Clinton lose. It was not that we voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump (we clearly did not); we just didn’t vote in the numbers necessary to help Mrs. Clinton.
Having paid attention to that, a significant number of the current Democratic presidential contenders has decided to announce support for a specifically Black issue—reparations for African Americans. In particular, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, and a new candidate, Marianne Williamson, have all recently said they support reparations for African Americans. Interestingly, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton publicly supported reparations for African Americans during their campaigns.
In a way, that is very good news. But overall, it is insignificant. Why? Each of the candidates making that claim has a different definition of the reparations issue, but all of them see reparations as some kind of financial payment specific to the African American population.
For the reparations movement, that’s a self-inflicted problem. We have squandered the opportunity, especially since 2004, to provide a clear, understandable definition of the concept that shows that simply paying money to African Americans (even if it can be clarified who exactly African Americans are in this country) is not a sufficient reparations result. We do need to scramble now to re-take the initiative to be clear since there will surely at least be a renewed conversation about reparations for African Americans in this country.
Wanting and needing something substantial to come out of that conversation rather than mere confusion and obfuscation, we need to get on it right now and get a meaningful definition out there. We can quote Randall Robinson, Gerald Horne, or a number of other scholars for that purpose, but the presidential contenders should not be allowed to mucky up the conversation with nonsensical ideas about what reparations is and isn’t.
For examples, to Sen. Warren, reparations is a program for “universal child care that would guarantee the benefit from birth until a child enters school. Families with income less than 200 percent of the poverty line would get free access and others would pay no more than 7 percent of their income.” For Sen. Harris, reparations is a program of tax credits specifically focused on providing a monthly stipend to qualified poor families of all races. To Julian Castro, reparations would be an intensified anti-poverty program that would provide improved housing, education, and employment opportunities.
Only Marianne Williamson, a barely known candidate thus far, promoted a specific reparations plan that aimed at transferring money directly to Black Americans–$10 billion for 10 years as payback for slavery, Jim Crowism and continued racial discrimination.
But reparations is not just about individual cash payments, and no serious reparations scholar advocates that, although many in the Black community would certainly accept that result.
The point is, the reparations movement is not a flyby, insubstantial activity, and it cannot afford to just let the conversation meander around on its own. Nothing may come of this renewed interest by the presidential candidates, and none of them may get African American votes for supporting reparations. We, however, who are ardent advocates must not let this opportunity for a solid public vetting of the issue slip by us.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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