Beyond the Rising Tide: Reparations for Slavery Have to Be More Than a Symbol
When hip-hop radio host Charlamagne tha God asked Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris if they had a “specific agenda” for black Americans on his show, “The Breakfast Club,” earlier this month, it was clear that neither did.
“I have a specific agenda for the American people,” started Booker. But for Charlamagne, and many other black Americans, a generalized American agenda isn’t a substitute for a plan that specifically addresses the needs of black folks.
“They always say a rising tide lifts all boats,” Charlamagne interrupted, “but we don’t really see that in our communities.”
Charlamagne elaborated on this idea during his interview with Harris: “I think when it comes to black people in America, Democrats, for whatever reason, when you ask them … usually we get that whole ‘rising tides raise all boats’ or ‘all Americans’ rhetoric, and I think black people just want to hear specific things for them, and I always wonder, ‘Why are people afraid to say what they would specifically do for black people?’”
The desire expressed by Charlamagne is understandable and legitimate. After committing overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party for decades, black Americans have seen the racial wealth gap widen, not shrink. As a result, some are increasingly skeptical of the value of programs that aren’t narrowly tailored to accrue to our benefit.
While it is true that the neoliberal strategies embraced by the Democratic Party since the 1980s have failed to close the racial wealth gap, the growing disdain for programs that don’t accrue to the exclusive benefit of black Americans is a red herring.
The problem isn’t that universal or economically driven programs can’t significantly close the racial wealth gap. It’s that the means-tested programs backed by the Democratic Party simply don’t go far enough.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was buffeted repeatedly by criticism that he didn’t do enough to connect with black Americans in the course of his 2016 presidential run. Much of that criticism was fair. But Sanders’s failure was in articulating how his policies would benefit black Americans, not in advancing policies that would benefit us.
Prior to the 2016 election, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who ultimately voted for Sanders, wrote, “Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policy — doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation.”
But the Democratic Party has never backed anything approaching the redistributive goals contemplated by Sanders’s 2016 agenda. The party’s economic plan has historically focused on economic mobility, “access” to “opportunity,” and removing barriers to participating in a capitalist economy. Child care programs, paid sick leave, and job training initiatives are promoted as strategies to ensure that all Americans can participate in what most Democrats see as a fundamentally functional system.
By contrast, politicians like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren challenge the system itself, because they view it as fundamentally inequitable. Leftists support traditional interventions that meaningfully ease the burdens of those struggling under capitalism. But they also seek to change the fact that profits in this country currently flow disproportionately to a privileged few at the very top — at the expense of wage growth for the workers whose labor generates those profits. As Sanders argues, if 90 percent of profits go to the top 1 percent, having technical “access” to the 1 percent isn’t enough; the system itself must change.
This structural approach is a game changer for African-Americans. Because the value of wealth compounds, capitalism rewards the historical possession of wealth; the ability to invest today is worth more than the ability to do so in the future. That being the case, how can black Americans, first enslaved and then legally barred from participating in capitalism for the overwhelming majority of this country’s history, begin to catch up without a systemic adjustment to the system?
The answer is we can’t. There will be no racial equality under capitalism.
It would take an estimated 228 years for black Americans to earn as much wealth as white Americans possess today, at which point blacks still would not have drawn even, because whites would presumably have accrued more wealth during that time as well. Simply put, closing the racial wealth gap demands a systemic approach.
It is true that universal programs without race-specific interventions are not enough. The failures of the New Deal illustrate how universal solutions can inadequately provide for the needs of the marginalized. But the reality that universal programs don’t always go far enough should not be perverted into an argument that universal programs aren’t integral to the task of closing the racial wealth gap.
During his “Breakfast Club” interview, Booker tried to explain that the issue with the “rising tides raise all ships” argument is not that the thesis is fundamentally flawed, but that universal programs historically were designed to either exclude African-Americans or, at best, were indifferent to structural reasons why African-Americans were less able to access benefits. “A lot of the programs that built the middle class in this country, African-Americans were excluded from,” said Booker, pointing to the Fair Housing Act and the GI Bill. “You had devaluations of American communities through mortgage lending and the like.”
But that’s not to say that a new New Deal shouldn’t be a goal. After all, New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps employed over 600,000 African-Americans. The Public Works Administration established quotas for the number of blacks to be hired for construction jobs, and New Deal education programs taught more than a million African-Americans how to read and write. It was in part because of the New Deal that African-Americans shifted their political allegiances to the Democratic Party in the first place. In the course of ensuring that we improve upon the New Deal’s mistakes, we shouldn’t lose sight of its benefits and the potential benefits of similar programs.
Unfortunately, in some circles, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Some liberal commentators affect indifference to the racial implications of policies that directly target the wealth gap because they aren’t explicitly cast as race policies. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” Hillary Clinton famously asked in the course of her 2016 campaign. “I would love to wake up in the morning and have my first thought be ‘I hate Wall Street,’” tweeted journalist Imani Gandy. “That’s the whitest shit I’ve ever heard.”
Similarly, when Booker offered up his baby bonds plan as part of a black-centric agenda, Charlamagne was skeptical on the basis that it wouldn’t exclusively help blacks. It “addresses all Americans,” Booker explained, “but it actually helps the racial wealth gap in a significant way,” by creating a savings account for low-income students.
Booker went on to make the case for his criminal justice bill, the beneficiaries of which are overwhelmingly African-American: “When you fix the system, you help poor white folks who get screwed by the system as well, but disproportionately, you’re gonna help those people who are most affected by an unjust criminal justice system,” he argued.
Booker is right. The unfortunate overlap between poverty and some historically marginalized identity groups means that when programs are equitably designed, a rising tide will disproportionately improve their fates: Since 1 out of 3 non-elderly Latinos and 1 out of 4 non-elderly blacks lack health insurance, those groups stand to be some of the biggest beneficiaries of “Medicare for All.” Blacks and Latinos are more likely to rely on Social Security benefits as an exclusive source of retirement income than whites, meaning attacks on Social Security threaten those groups disproportionately as well. Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented among minimum wage jobs, meaning we stand to gain more from a $15 minimum wage. And on, and on, and on.
In fact, most programs embraced as “race-specific” are economic programs or criminal justice programs — many of which, like bail reform, are race-neutral. Various “welfare programs” may be coded as “for black Americans,” but few are narrowly tailored to exclusively benefit us.
Arguably, Affirmative Action is race-based, but the biggest beneficiaries have been white women. And even though it was designed to address race-based disparities, it’s not clear that it has the intended reparative effect: The beneficiaries of Affirmative Action are disproportionately recent African and Caribbean immigrants, whose parents and grandparents were not victims of the pre-civil rights-era discrimination for which Affirmative Action is ostensibly supposed to compensate.
The one initiative that truly targets black people exclusively is reparations, for which Coates famously made a compelling case. But although he was incredibly successful at proving why African-Americans deserve reparations, at the end of his argument Coates is honest about not having a clear answer to how to deliver them, beyond Rep. John Conyers’s H.R.40 bill, which would provide resources to explore possible avenues for reparations. It’s a good start. But it’s just that — a start. That being the case, a push for reparations or any other unspecified, racially targeted policy shouldn’t come at the expense of the most radical redistributive policies this country has seen since the New Deal.
That’s especially true since the growing popularity of universal programs may actually lead to increased support for race-based reparations.
In a recent article, Vann Newkirk II spoke to William A. Darity, a professor at Duke University who is a foremost thinker on the question of reparations. “I have to say that the policies that have received the [most enthusiastic] reception are those that I might describe as universal policies that are not race-specific, but they are race-conscious,” Darity told Newkirk, referencing Booker’s baby bonds program as well as Warren’s housing grant initiative. But Darity thinks that the growing popularity of universal policies might “begin warming Americans up to the idea of reparations.”
As Newkirk tacitly admits, programs that target poverty do seem to be the best way to target the racial wealth gap — at least until more research is done. What’s not clear, however, is whether that message will go over well with a black electorate that is understandably skeptical of the notion that universal programs will ever “trickle down to them.”
For some, a black face heading a campaign will be reassurance enough that African-American interests are being advanced. But following Barack Obama’s presidency, the assumption that a black president will put black interests first has been complicated. Obama’s approach to the mortgage crisis famously bailed out big banks before homeowners, and black Americans were hit harder than any other group — losing 40 percent of our collective wealth in the crisis.
If online chatter is any indication, black voters are increasingly skeptical of representation that ends at the epidermis. Widespread criticism among African-Americans of Harris’s criminal justice record seems to suggest that identity isn’t a perfect defense for anti-black actions, though some have defended her on the basis that she had no other choice than to be tough on crime as a black woman held to higher standards.
Still, during her appearance on “The Breakfast Club,” Harris encountered none of the pushback Booker received, despite the two giving similar answers to the “black agenda” question. Harris argued that the black agenda “must include HBCUs,” and she pointed to her LIFT bill, which would give families making under $100,000 a year a monthly tax credit. She also referenced criminal justice reform and maternal mortality.
When asked specifically about reparations during her “Breakfast Club” interview, Harris “recognized” the discrimination that black Americans have historically faced, and made the case for why reparations are deserved. But like Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Sanders before her, she declined to support a specific reparations program. “There are a number of ways to do it,” she finally answered, before gesturing again to racially unspecific means-tested programs like her LIFT Act.
Harris still has no policies posted to her campaign website, but based on what she’s articulated so far, her agenda is no more “race-specific” than that of Sanders, whose universal health care plan specifically addressed treatment disparities, and whose free college plan provided support for HBCUs. If anything, Sanders’s plans go further than most — redistributing more wealth from the top, which is likely the reason he received so much pushback from establishment gatekeepers in 2016 and now).
When Charlamagne asked Harris why politicians seem uncomfortable speaking to black Americans’ specific concerns, she answered with what has become a very familiar refrain about “speaking truths” before elaborating: “On this subject, it’s about recognizing that there are huge disparities based on race. They cannot be denied, and they must be addressed.”
She’s absolutely right. And many 2020 contenders have done exactly that. But voters should be clear that “recognizing” disparities and doing something about them through aggressive, redistributive policies are not the same thing. To achieve results, it’s important for black voters to focus on material interventions and the ways in which they are tailored to address racial disparities — not just symbolic recognition. Equality depends on it.
Briahna Gray is a columnist and senior politics editor at The Intercept. She is also an opinion columnist with a focus on progressive political messaging, as well as issues relating to identity and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Current Affairs, and The Week, among others. Her insights regarding the weaponization of identity in the contemporary political sphere can be found in the Fusion documentary “Trumpland: Kill All Normies,” as well as a variety of podcasts and online programs, including NPR, TYT, and The Real News.