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Reparations for Slavery, Shelved for Decades, Is on the Election Table

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/13/2019 Joshua Jamerson
a screen shot of Kamala Harris © justin lane/Shutterstock

The Rev. Al Sharpton asked Democratic presidential candidates the same question at his New York conference last week: Should the U.S. government research how to make amends for centuries of enslavement and oppression of African-Americans?

One by one, the candidates said yes.

“There’s a direct connection between exclusion in the past and exclusion in the present,” Pete Buttigieg—the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is white—told a mostly African-American crowd gathered in a Manhattan ballroom. “That’s exactly why we need a rigorous, serious study.”

Studying reparations for slavery has moved from theoretical fodder for essayists, economists and historians into the mainstream of Democratic politics, a phenomenon owed to top-tier presidential candidates embracing the idea and the single bill in Congress addressing it. That legislation, known as H.R. 40, was first introduced in 1989 and for decades was ignored by presidents and congressional leaders of both parties.

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H.R. 40 would establish a federal commission to study how slavery and Jim Crow impact African-Americans today. The bill’s language calls for suggestions to “remedy” slavery’s aftereffects.

Democrats aren’t ignoring it any longer. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this year publicly endorsed the bill—something she apparently hadn’t done in her prior 16 years as House Democratic leader. Her office declined to discuss her past views on the bill. Of the 18 Democratic candidates running for president or openly exploring a bid, at least 11 of them support the measure.

“Absolutely, I would sign that into law,” former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said last week with Mr. Sharpton.

The candidates aren’t explicitly calling for direct payments from the U.S. Treasury into the bank accounts of Americans whose ancestors were slaves—and, typically, that isn’t what many African-American congressional leaders say reparations must be. It could amount to formal government recognition that slavery was an injustice committed by the U.S., for example.

“Do I expect a bag of cash to show up on my door tomorrow? No,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of Black PAC, a liberal organization that conducted polling and backed candidates during the 2018 midterm election. “But I do think that we have to be able to think about … how we address the past.”

Ms. Shropshire added that support for a reparations study would help candidates seeking to connect with black voters—and perhaps some whites—concerned about wealth inequities in the U.S.

Twitter mentions of H.R. 40 increased by 150% between January and February, according to an analysis provided to The Wall Street Journal by Storyful, a company that scours social-media services and can identify trends. Storyful is owned by News Corp, the corporate parent of the Journal.

During that time, the most early prominent example of a presidential candidate speaking in support of reparations was Feb. 11, when Sen. Kamala Harris of California appeared on the popular New York-based radio program “The Breakfast Club.”

Speaking to host Lenard McKelvey, known professionally as Charlamagne tha God, Ms. Harris said: “America has a history of 200 years of slavery. We had Jim Crow. We had legal segregation in America for a very long time.” Mr. McKelvey asked her if she supported “some type” of reparations. She said yes.

Since the start of the year Ms. Harris has been mentioned on 309 occasions on Twitter in connection with H.R. 40. About 88% of those mentions came after that radio appearance, according to the Storyful analysis.

In the weeks since that interview, the topic of reparations for slavery has been searched more on Google than at any time in the past decade, according to data from Google Trends. The recent surge in interest exceeds by far the last jump in searches, which followed an essay in 2014 by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic headlined “The Case for Reparations.”

Mr. McKelvey said he asked Ms. Harris about reparations after hearing other African-Americans, including listeners of his program, which reaches four million to five million people a week, express interest. But he said the subsequent conversation in the 2020 Democratic nominating contest has been short on specifics.

“The follow-up question should’ve been, ‘What does that reparations plan look like?’” he said.

Some elected Democrats have also expressed disappointment with the conversation. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey plans to introduce a Senate version of H.R. 40, but he said at a recent CNN town hall that inequities between blacks and whites has been “reduced to just a box to check on a presidential list, when this is so much more of a serious conversation.”

When Mr. Coates asked President Obama about reparations in 2016, the Democrat said: “The bottom line is that it’s hard to find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts.” A spokesman for Mr. Obama declined to comment. President Trump hasn’t addressed H.R. 40.

Several Republican senators say they have reservations about H.R. 40. GOP control of the Senate and the White House are the main reason Democrats in Congress, even some co-sponsors of H.R. 40, are skeptical it will become law.

Mr. Booker’s bill would face resistance on the Judiciary Committee, which would be the vessel for such legislation to see the Senate floor. “I think it’s too remote in time, I think it’s too divisive and I don’t think it’s good for the country, quite frankly,” Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said this week.

Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.), a Judiciary Committee member, said he doesn’t think anyone alive today should be held responsible for slavery. “I believe in personal responsibility,” he said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas), lead sponsor of H.R. 40, acknowledged that her bill doesn’t top House Democrats’ agenda. She noted the House Judiciary Committee, which would consider it, is focusing on wide oversight over the Trump administration, including the Mueller report. “We’re able to do two things at once,” she said, but added: “I know that you get in the queue.”

Majority Whip James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, said in an interview he thought H.R. 40 could pass by year’s end.

The reparations bill appears affixed to the Democratic presidential primary, for now at least, as candidates court black voters. There is scant public polling on reparations, but two polls in the past four years show most African-Americans in support and most whites opposed.

It isn’t a sure bet that black voters would be moved by pledges around reparations. Jacqueline Foster, a retired educator from Queens, N.Y., attended the Sharpton conference last week and was skeptical of the candidates. “They said what they think a black audience would want to hear,” she said.

Write to Joshua Jamerson at joshua.jamerson@wsj.com

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