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2020 Democrats Talk Reparations


Now let's hear some of the Democrats who would like to replace President Trump. Some are being asked a provocative question - what do you think of reparations? That means payments to African-Americans for slavery at the start of this country and for official discrimination afterwards. Some Democrats say they favor the idea, but it's harder to say how reparations would be paid. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: At a CNN town hall this week, Bernie Sanders was asked about the topic of reparations. When moderator Wolf Blitzer pushed him for a direct response, Sanders answered with his own question, one that is now hanging over the 2020 Democratic field.


WOLF BLITZER: So what is your position specifically on reparations? I ask the question because Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro - they've indicated they want to...

BERNIE SANDERS: What does that mean? What do they mean? I'm not sure anyone's very clear.

KURTZLEBEN: Warren, Castro, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, California Senator Kamala Harris and author Marianne Williamson have all, in some way, said they are in favor of reparations for African-Americans. Warren has added that Native Americans should be a part of the conversation as well.

But as far as what their reparations would look like or how reparations is even defined, that's where things get complicated. Williamson has the most straightforward approach, saying she'd allocate up to $500 billion to reparations. Harris, meanwhile, has said that she approves of reparations and has promoted her tax credit plan when asked about what types of policies she'd put into place.


KAMALA HARRIS: We have to recognize that everybody did not start out on an equal footing in this country. And in particular, black people have not. And so we have got to recognize that and do something about that and give folks a lift up.

KURTZLEBEN: Advocates for reparations point to America's massive racial wealth gap. As of 2016, the median white family had a net worth 10 times as big as the median black family. To address that, Booker is touting his baby bonds proposal, in which the government puts money into savings accounts for kids. That policy could substantially shrink the wealth gap, as African-Americans are disproportionately on the low end of the income scale.

However, neither Booker nor Harris' programs are race-based. All of this risks creating confusion around what exactly constitutes reparations, says Darrick Hamilton, director of Ohio State's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

DARRICK HAMILTON: Something that is economically inclusive but has a racial bend to it simply because of how one group is distributed along the income distribution - those may or may not be good policies. But let's be clear, it's not reparations.

KURTZLEBEN: Hamilton says that calling a policy reparations when it doesn't explicitly attempt to address past wrongs could amount to putting a Band-Aid on a gaping centuries-old wound.

HAMILTON: That would be almost the worst-case scenario to say we have addressed the race issue when, in fact, we have not done it.

KURTZLEBEN: While the candidates' policies may not meet the criteria of reparations, they are being sold as racially conscious. For example, Warren's plan for housing aid particularly to areas with a history of racial discrimination could help shrink the wealth gap. But her campaign stresses that she does not consider that proposal reparations. Regardless of labels, the focus on racial disparities is a shift, according to Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau.

HILARY SHELTON: What they're all recognizing is that these disparities are very much part of the American landscape. And finding solutions to them - that means addressing issues that are as broad as living in our country itself.

KURTZLEBEN: A 2016 Marist poll showed that only 1 in 4 Americans approved of reparations, but a clear majority of black Americans backed the idea. That group is a key demographic for Democrats. And heading into 2020, the party is grappling with more direct questions about race and who its platform serves. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.


Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.