The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto wrote that remarks Sen Barack Obama made at the UNITY '08 Convention “seem[ed] to be something of an endorsement of the idea of 'reparations for slavery,' which is usually taken to mean cash payments.” However, when specifically asked at the convention whether he supported “offering reparations to various groups,” Obama replied that “the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed.”
In his July 30 online column, Wall Street Journal OpinionJournal.com editor James Taranto wrote that July 27 remarks Sen Barack Obama made at the UNITY '08 Convention “seem[ed] to be something of an endorsement of the idea of 'reparations for slavery,' which is usually taken to mean cash payments.” Taranto referenced a July 28 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article, which quoted Obama as saying at the UNITY Convention: “I've consistently believed, when it comes -- whether it's Native American issues, whether it's African-American issues and reparations, that the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just to offer words, but offer deeds.” After noting Obama's comments, Taranto wrote: “Exactly what Obama is advocating here cannot be determined, but it seems to be something of an endorsement of the idea of 'reparations for slavery,' which is usually taken to mean cash payments.” However, when specifically asked moments later by CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux whether he supported “offering reparations to various groups,” Obama replied: “I have said in the past, and I'll repeat again, that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed. And I think that strategies that invest in lifting people out of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but that have broad applicability and allow us to build coalitions to actually get these things done, that, I think, is the best strategy.”
Indeed, as Obama noted at the UNITY Convention, he has made similar comments “in the past” when asked about the issue of reparations. During the July 24, 2007, CNN/YouTube debate, Obama was asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper for his “position on reparations.” Obama replied:
I think the reparations we need right here in South Carolina is investment, for example, in our schools. ... I did a town hall meeting in Florence, South Carolina, in an area called the corridor of shame. They've got buildings that students are trying to learn in that were built right after the Civil War. And we've got teachers who are not trained to teach the subjects they're teaching and high dropout rates. We've got to understand that there are corridors of shame all across the country. And if we make the investments and understand that those are our children, that's the kind of reparations that are really going to make a difference in America right now.
Of the Democratic presidential candidates present at the CNN/YouTube debate, only Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH) answered in the affirmative when Cooper asked, “Is anyone on the stage for reparations for slavery for African-Americans?”
In addition, The Chicago Tribune reported in an October 18, 2004, article (accessed through the Nexis database) that “Obama opposes giving reparations to descendants of slaves" and “the Democratic nominee thinks that the residual damage done by slavery cannot be repaired with money”:
Campaigning in the nation's first U.S. Senate race between major-party African-American candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Alan Keyes present widely different approaches to civil rights and minority empowerment.
Obama considers education to be the most important civil rights issue facing America today; Keyes believes it's abortion. Obama opposes giving reparations to descendants of slaves; Keyes supports the idea.
Obama supports laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment and housing.
The stances of the two were gleaned from answers they gave to a Tribune questionnaire on civil rights, affirmative action, housing and other matters. They were also taken from public comments and interviews.
The men are vying to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who is retiring.
The Republican nominee says his stance is part of his overall position supporting the abolition of the federal income tax, which he thinks should be replaced by a national sales tax.
“So, really what I'm talking about is making black Americans who are descendants of slaves first on that list of appropriate tax relief,” he said in his questionnaire.
But the Democratic nominee thinks that the residual damage done by slavery cannot be repaired with money.
“Rather we should focus on ensuring that our anti-discrimination laws are vigorously enforced, and that we continue to invest in education, job training and other programs that lift all people out of poverty and improve their opportunities in life,” Obama said.
From Obama's July 27 question-and-answer session at the UNITY '08 Convention:
BULL: Senator, I am Brian Bull from Wisconsin Public Radio and the Native American Journalists Association. Last February, the Australian prime minister apologized for the past treatment of its indigenous people. Last month, the Canadian prime minister also issued an apology for its treatment of its indigenous population. Would your administration issue an apology to Native Americans for the atrocities they've endured for the past 500 years?
OBAMA: You know, I personally would want to see our tragic history or the tragic elements of our history acknowledged. And I think that there's no doubt that when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans, as well as other persons of color in this country, that we've got some, some very sad and difficult things to account for.
What an official apology would look like, how it would be shaped, that's something that I would want to consult with Native Americans tribes and councils to talk about. And because obviously, as sovereign nations, they also have a whole host of other issues that they're concerned about and that they've prioritized. One of the things that I said to tribal leaders is, I want to set up a annual meeting with them and make sure that a whole range of these issues are addressed.
But I've consistently believed, when it comes -- whether it's Native American issues, whether it's African-American issues and reparations, that the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just to offer words, but offer deeds. And when you look at the situation on tribal lands, the fact that by every socioeconomic indicator Native Americans are doing worse than any other population on health, on education, on substance abuse -- their housing situations are deplorable, unemployment is skyrocketing -- you know, I have to confess that I'm more concerned about delivering a better life and creating a better relationship with the Native American peoples than anything else. And that's what I want to engage tribal leaders in making sure happens.
MALVEAUX: When it comes to reparations, would you take it a step further, in terms of apologizing for slavery or offering reparations to various groups?
OBAMA: You know, I have said in the past, and I'll repeat again, that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed. And I think that strategies that invest in lifting people out of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but that have broad applicability and allow us to build coalitions to actually get these things done, that, I think, is the best strategy.
You know, the fact is, is that dealing with some of the, some of the legacy of discrimination is going to cost billions of dollars. And we're not going to be able to have that kind of resource allocation, unless all Americans feel that they are invested in making this stuff happen. And so, you know, I'm much more interested in talking about how do we get every child to learn, how do we get every person health care, how do we make sure that everybody has a job, how do we make sure that every senior citizen can retire with dignity and respect. And if we have a program, for example, of universal health care, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because they're disproportionately uninsured. If we've got an agenda that says every child in America should get -- should be able to go to college, regardless of income, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because it's oftentimes our children who can't afford to go to college.
From Taranto's July 30 column:
One of the most appealing features of the Barack Obama candidacy is the idea that Obama is “postracial” -- that he is a candidate who is black and does not practice the adversarial politics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. This is why his 20-year association with the racist anti-American crackpot Jeremiah Wright was potentially so damaging to him, and why Jesse Jackson's lurid fantasies of sexually mutilating Obama were such a great stroke of luck for the candidate.
But a story in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin raises serious questions about Obama's postracialism. The paper describes an Obama appearance at Unity '08, “a convention of four minority journalism associations”:
“I personally would want to see our tragic history, or the tragic elements of our history, acknowledged,” the Democratic presidential hopeful said.
“I consistently believe that when it comes to whether it's Native Americans or African-American issues or reparations, the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just offer words, but offer deeds.”
Exactly what Obama is advocating here cannot be determined, but it seems to be something of an endorsement of the idea of “reparations for slavery,” which is usually taken to mean cash payments. In this view, the following deeds are insufficient to balance the ledger between America and the descendants of slaves: the Civil War, the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the continuing practice of racial preferences.
The idea of reparations is highly unpopular, and with good reason. Unlike the Japanese-Americans who in 1988 received compensation for their internment by a Democratic administration in the grips of wartime hysteria, no one alive today has ever been a slave. The idea of the government cutting checks to compensate people for a wrong that they did not personally suffer is unlikely to appeal to anyone except perhaps those who stand to receive those checks.
The politics of this are rather odd. There is little for Obama to gain by endorsing reparations. If ever there was a candidate who has no need to pander to the descendants of slaves, it is Barack Obama. Democratic presidential candidates can usually count on upward of 90% of the black vote, and Obama racked up similar percentages in a hard-fought primary battle.
On the other hand, in order to attract votes among nonblacks, Obama needs to guard carefully his postracial credentials. It's one thing to endorse racial preferences, a conventionally liberal if unpopular view. But reparations remains a fringe idea--the sort of idea a presidential nominee would normally be careful to stay away from.
Greg Johnson is an intern with Media Matters for America.