Five years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates thrust the issue of reparations back into the national spotlight. In his 15,000-word essay in The Atlantic, Coates meticulously laid out why the country’s long history of slavery and Jim Crow discrimination against black people necessitated a bill like HR 40, which would have created a commission to study various reparations proposals.
“We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions,” Coates wrote. “But we are not interested.”
At the time, former Congressman John Conyers had reintroduced HR 40 every year since 1989 to little avail, and most lawmakers viewed reparations as a fringe idea at best. Speaking of reparations in 2016, former President Barack Obama told Coates that it seemed “hard to find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts.”
Today, the idea of studying the issue has the support of most Democrats, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, with just 20 percent opposed.
And while survey questions suggest reparations themselves are a tough sell, a modestly growing minority of the party supports the idea of making cash payments to black Americans descended from enslaved people.
Five years ago, Democrats opposed reparations by a roughly two-to-one margin. Today, opinions are closer to evenly split: 34% currently say they favor reparations, with 37% opposed, and the remaining 29% unsure. Although the subgroup sizes are small, some blocs ― including black Democrats and Democrats under the age of 45 ― are currently more likely than not to back the policy.
Even the 13% sliver of the GOP that now supports the policy is up modestly from the 4% who backed it in 2014.
In recent months, prominent presidential candidates, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have come out in favor of reparations in some form.
At Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention in New York City last week, every Democratic candidate said when asked that they would sign HR 40 into law as president. One of the candidates, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), pushed the conversation further along this week by saying he would soon introduce an accompanying bill to HR 40 in the Senate.
William Darity Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University who has been studying reparations for three decades, said he hasn’t seen evidence of this much energy around the issue since the Reconstruction Era.
“I certainly didn’t anticipate it,” he said of the newfound interest. “I’m actually very surprised at the extent to which the [reparations] conversation has moved fully into the public arena.”
Any momentum in the political sphere should be credited to the social movements of the last few years, particularly among young Americans, said Darrick Hamilton, the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University,
“When we hear candidates talk about it, that’s a barometer,” said Hamilton. “The impetus is what’s going on underneath that is leading them to have to at least consider it.”
Kamm Howard, the national male co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, isn’t surprised by any recent momentum. His organization has been pushing politicians on the issue for years. Last January, N’COBRA reached out to Booker about crafting a Senate companion bill.
His organization had also reached out to Harris, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has been open to discussing reparations for years, he said.
“We have been working to get to this point,” Howard said. “We’re happy.”
Democrats’ increasing openness to the idea of reparations corresponds to a broader shift on the impacts of racial discrimination ― one that’s become apparent across American society within the past few years, but especially visible within the party. Within the past five years, pollsters have tracked steep gains in the share of the public who believes that the country needs to take further strides toward racial equality and doesn’t spend enough on “improving the conditions” of black people.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll also shows a stark increase in the share of Democrats who acknowledge systemic barriers to equality. In a 2014 YouGov poll, 32% of Democrats said the impact of slavery had a major impact in black Americans’ lower average wealth levels today; in a 2019 survey, a 53% majority said the same. In 2014, 54% said discrimination was a major factor in that disparity; in the most recent survey, that number is up to 68%. Republicans and independents have also moved in the same direction, albeit far less dramatically.
Democrats are more likely now than they were five years ago to say that black Americans currently face discrimination when buying a house, trying to take out a loan, dealing with the police and getting a quality education, the poll finds. In that time, Democrats have also grown more likely to think the government should take action to make up for past wrongs, whether by officially apologizing for slavery or setting up jobs and education programs for the descendants of enslaved people.
Despite the growing broad support of reparations in the Democratic primary, only one presidential candidate, Marianne Williamson, has explicitly stated she supports setting aside billions for reparations. And Darity admitted it’s “easier to support the formation of a commission than to commit to a comprehensive reparations program.”
But he and Hamilton both said that the growing willingness to support a commission to study the issue should not be dismissed as a superficial shift to avoid a larger commitment, but an essential step in the right direction.
“HR 40 is a precondition for reparations,” said Hamilton. “Not only is it a precondition, it’s a crucial element.”