This article is one of a series of summaries of progressive federal policy ideas written by Think policy fellows. Think does not have a position on any of the proposals mentioned in this summary as we are focused on state-level policy, rather we offer these descriptions as helpful tools for candidates and elected officials who may be interested or face questions on these topics.
Almost 150 years after slavery officially ended, African Americans still experience vast disparities in terms of income, health outcomes, quality of schooling, homeownership, and wealth compared to white Americans. Advocates for reparations argue these current inequalities stem from the historical legacy of slavery and longstanding racial discrimination.
Despite this fervent belief, debate abounds about what reparations are or would look like. It can mean direct payments to descendants of slaves, correcting textbooks/other secondary sources, conducting research, building up African American institutions, implementing reconciliation committees, or issuing a formal state apology.
All the major Democratic candidates support commissioning a study on reparations, but none are calling for direct compensation. Instead, most are emphasizing broader policies intended to address income inequality, like universal income, tax credits to poorer families, improving access to education, raising the minimum wage, providing affordable childcare, regulating banks, or promoting home ownership.
However, three of the five major candidates have stylized plans to address the current struggles of African Americans. Buttigieg’s “Douglass Plan” would reduce mass incarceration and grow the number of black-owned small businesses. Sander’s “Thurgood Marshall Plan” tackles school segregation and increases public school funding. Elizabeth Warren provides extra funding to communities previously targeted by redlining through her American Housing and Economic Mobility Act and increases funds for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Pell Grants that predominantly help minorities.
Most civil society advocates take a more expansive approach, arguing for multiple forms of restitution from the government, private companies, and wealthy families that owe a good portion of their wealth to slavery. For example, the Black Lives Matter Manifesto requires “a systematic accounting, acknowledgement, and repair of past and ongoing harms, monetary compensation to individuals and institutions led by and accountable to black communities, and an end to present day policies and practices that perpetuate harms rooted in a history of anti-black racism, along with a guarantee that they will not be repeated.
Supporters argue the following:
- Owed debt: America literally was built on the backs of slaves; it then held African Americans back from receiving government support for generations and let private companies discriminate against them. Reparations is the only just way to address America’s original sin of slavery and its subsequent failure to address its continuing legacy.
- Combat longstanding structural inequality: Since many researchers argue disparities between black and white Americans stem from historical exclusion and current racism, reparations targeting black communities is the most efficacious and just way to solve the issue.
- Increasingly supportive views toward affirmative actions for African Americans: In the 2018 General Social Survey, 52% of Americans say the country spends too little on improving the conditions of Black America – an all-time high. A 2017 Pew poll also shows that 61% of Americans believe the country has not done enough to give equal rights to blacks.
- Recognizes African Americans’ value and struggles: Outside of the economic dimensions of reparations, advocates argue that reparations would give legitimacy to the role of African Americans in American history and expand awareness of it.
Opponents impugn it for being:
- Unpopular and divisive, which may inflame racial tensions: Compensation forms of reparations are politically unpopular. In two recent polls, only 26% of voters supported payment- reparations. Reparations are especially unpopular among white voters and Republicans, but even Democratic voters are split on support for reparations. However, a 60% majority of African Americans support compensation for wrongs, which some argue would inflame tensions.
- Unclear how to do it: Given the varying definitions, debates proliferate about what a reparations program would look like, who would benefit, who would pay, and how it would be funded. One challenge, for example, would be how to identify who are descendants of slaves.
- Unfair to other marginalized groups: Some argue that a targeted policy supporting African Americans denies the fact that other immigrants and minorities face(d) discrimination – even though they weren’t slaves. Republicans also argue that reparations would divide the African American community into “descendants of slaves” and “non-descendants” who came after the end of slavery, fueling discord.
- Expensive: Economists and researchers estimate reparations could cost between $6.4 trillionto $14 trillion. The most controversial and prominent number is $97 trillion, which anthropologist Jason Hickel estimates is the modern day value of the 222.5 million hours of forced slave labor that America benefited from. To put this in perspective, the entire U.S. GDP in 2019 was $21.44 trillion.
- A slippery slope: Reparations open the door for other minority groups to demand redress for historical injustices. Elizabeth Warren has already been on the record saying that reparation discussions should include Native Americans as well.
- Has been solved: Republicans argue it is no longer a problem because of civil rights legislation, the election of President Barack Obama, and changes in criminal justice policies. Trump also points to the lowest African-American unemployment rate in history.
- Better to focus on broader policies that tackle current challenges: Policies that would disproportionately help African Americans – like criminal justice and housing reform – poll much better than support for reparations. Political pragmatists argue not bundling these reforms underneath the moniker of “reparations” makes more sense.
- Why should I pay for sins from 150 years ago: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell believes Americans today should not pay for the nation’s “original sin” that happened “150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible.”
 These include Jim Crow, discriminatory private regulation, exclusionary housing practices, and denying access to social security or GI funding.
 Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bloomberg. Of the candidates who have dropped out, only Marianne Williamson and Tom Steyer have called for payments to descendants of slaves.
 Buttigieg wants to reduce the number of Americans incarcerated by half; triple the number of entrepreneurs from underserved areas and particularly entrepreneurs of color within 10 years, which he says would create 3 million jobs and $660 billion in new wealth for black communities.
 The act would create a housing program that would offer special financial aid to first-time homebuyers in communities affected by redlining, a form of housing discrimination that classified predominantly black communities and homebuyers as “hazardous” and undesirable, a designation that led to extremely high — if not outright prohibitive — costs of loans to black homebuyers.