Harris, Warren: Yes, we support reparations for black Americans

I feel like this will be a good, productive conversation for the country to have next summer amid the toxic atmosphere of a presidential election, with Trump leading the anti side of the argument.

Maybe it’ll help crack Elizabeth Warren crack five percent in the South Carolina primary, though. That’s what’s important.

Last week, Senator Kamala Harris of California agreed with a radio host’s recent suggestion that government reparations for black Americans were necessary to address the legacies of slavery and discrimination. Ms. Harris later affirmed that support in a statement to The Times…

Ms. Warren also said she supported reparations for black Americans impacted by slavery — a policy that experts say could cost several trillion dollars, and one that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and many top Democrats have not supported…

“We must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences, including undermining the ability of black families to build wealth in America for generations,” Ms. Warren told The Times. “We need systemic, structural changes to address that.”

I assume she also supports reparations for Native Americans. If you think her Cherokee DNA test was a backfire, imagine her having to explain to various tribes why the persecution and ethnic cleansing they experienced doesn’t quite cut it for compensatory purposes.

There isn’t a ton of recent polling on this subject but there is some, and it’s uniformly bad for reparations fans. Last year Rasmussen found 70 percent of Americans opposed to reparations for slavery. Two years earlier Marist saw 68 percent opposed, although a slim majority of millennials were either in favor or unsure. Two years before that, in 2014, YouGov asked whether cash payments should be made to the descendants of slaves and got an overall split of 15/68. (Among Democrats it was 26/50.)

Interestingly, there was much more support for reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II (37/41) and for German reparations to Jews who survived the Holocaust (55/25). You can attribute greater support for compensation in those cases to the fact that they occurred within living memory or, relatedly, to the fact that the payments would be made to people directly victimized by the policies in question. Or, of course, you can attribute it to racism against black Americans.

You might read all that and think, “So not only is this issue a loser in the general election, it’s a loser in the primary.” Well, maybe. I’d be wary of treating a poll from 2014 as strong evidence of how Democrats feel today, though. Five years ago, shrinking government was the Republican base’s top priority; today that same base wouldn’t care if Trump started nationalizing industries. It’s entirely possible that Democrats have moved left on this issue just like they’ve moved left on so many others, especially now that the then-leader of the party, Obama — who opposed reparations — has passed from the scene. Even if it’s true that this issue is a loser in the general election, and it almost certainly is, it doesn’t follow that it’s a loser in the primary. Every Democrat running covets the black vote and fears the potential Kamala Harris and/or Cory Booker have to dominate it. Progressives like Warren are keenly aware that black voters made the difference in defeating Bernie Sanders in 2016. If she has to do something showy like endorse reparations to put her on the radar of black Democrats, well, then that’s what she’ll do.

As for how the nominee will handle this issue in the general election, that’s tricky. They could retreat from it, of course, and trust that black voters will support them overwhelmingly anyone on Election Day despite the betrayal. It may be that the Democratic strategy in 2020 will view this issue as only a minor liability, though: The party seems inclined to give up on winning back working-class white votes from Trump (although that’ll change if Bernie’s the nominee), preferring instead to try to mobilize its own base and simply outvote Republicans next November. They did it in the midterms a few months ago, they can do it again. If whites without a college degree rally to Trump because they find it unfair that their tax dollars might be redirected to black Americans who were never enslaved, it may be equally the case that black voters rally to the Democratic nominee at historic rates because they support the cause of reparations. It’s a base strategy, turbo-charged.

But there are more lower-class white voters than there are black voters, so it’d be a … highly risky play. Which is why, I think, Dem candidates will start refining what they mean by “reparations.” Direct payments to descendants of slaves are a hard, hard sell; policies like Cory Booker’s “baby bonds” plan, which is racially neutral and means-tested but which would have the effect of benefiting many black families, would be easier. Notice that neither Harris nor Warren specified what sort of reparations they have in mind, with Harris telling the Times that she wants “real investments in black communities.” That can mean a lot of things. And it probably will end up meaning a lot of things as she and Warren are quizzed by reporters for specifics.

Via the Times, here’s Bernie sounding skeptical of reparations three years ago. I feel like he’s going to have a rosier view of them this year. How are we going to pay for that plus the Green New Deal plus Medicare for all, you ask? We’re gonna print money, sucka. Lots of it. What could go wrong?