Senator Cory Booker’s proposal for “baby bonds,” for example, would provide starting capital and the germ of a nest egg to families regardless of race. But because it would have the practical effect of reducing the generational compounding of wealth inequality, and would therefore disproportionately benefit African Americans, the policy has been touted by some as a possible example of reparations.

What is the reason for this linguistic ambiguity? On the panel, I suggested that one reason for the increased salience of reparations could be disappointment with the impact of the Obama presidency on race relations in America. Inasmuch as that is the case, advocates of reparations may be responding to a felt communal desire to press unfinished business when messages of hope and transcendence are no longer as viscerally compelling. Politicians, in turn, may be choosing to repackage their preferred program as a form of reparations precisely so as to be perceived as responsive to that demand coming from the grass roots.

As with the Green New Deal, another exercise in expansive ambiguity, what is intended to be constructive may yield the worst of both worlds. Opposition will inevitably draw the most alarming picture of the implications of reparations, while advocates may have a hard time pointing to concrete accomplishments — or may even face a backlash from their own supporters if they claim accomplishments that fall vastly short of the very large spiritual and economic goals of the movement.