A slim majority of white Americans agree that hundreds of years of chattel slavery continue to impact African Americans to this day; however, only 15 percent of them support reparations to redress this damage, according to a recent poll.
According to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, just under a third of all Americans support the idea that the U.S. government ought to pay cash reparations to black Americans. And—as anyone who was born on a day that is not yesterday might expect—there are steep racial divisions in how people answered on the issue of reparations, and whether the U.S. government owes black Americans an apology for slavery.
From the AP:
Most black Americans, 74%, favor reparations, compared with 15% of white Americans. Among [Latinx], 44% favor reparations.
...Poll respondents also were sharply divided by race on whether the U.S. government should issue an apology for slavery: 64% of white Americans oppose a government apology, while 77% of black Americans and 64% of Hispanics believe an apology is due. Overall, 46% of Americans favor and 52% oppose a national apology.
These answers are particularly interesting when set against the less divisive question of whether slavery continues to impact the lived realities of black people in the U.S. today. According to the AP poll, 60 percent of all Americans agreed that the history of slavery impacts present-day black Americans “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” Black Americans were most likely to agree, at 80 percent, followed by Latinx, at 69 percent. A slim majority of white people—54 percent—also believed this.
In other words, most Americans believe their country’s history of enslavement has present-day ramifications, yet remain deeply divided on whether and how those impacts need to be addressed.
For some white folks, this appears to be less about the economic and social damage done to black American communities than it does about retaining a sense of their own virtue. Why should they have to pay for a crime that they or their families didn’t commit?
From the AP, one more time, with feeling:
Lori Statzer, 79, of West Palm Beach, Florida, opposes cash reparations and an official government apology.
“None of the black people in America today are under the slavery issue,” said Statzer, who is white. “It’s over with.”
Using taxpayers’ money to pay reparations “would be unfair to me,” she added. “My ancestors came to this country, worked hard to become Americans and never asked for anything.”
But people who have been advocating for reparations for decades, like Anita Belle, founder of the Reparations Labor Union in Detroit, note that these numbers actually mark substantial progress. Belle told the AP she was encouraged by the slim percentages of support among white Americans.
Reparations have been debated in this country since the end of the Civil War, but the conversation has vaulted to the forefront of American racial and political discourse, thanks to vigorous explorations of the topic (most notably, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations”), as well as growing political support for reparations policies (several Democratic presidential candidates have advocated for a congressional committee to study the topic—an idea first put forth by Former Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan in 1989).
During this summer’s high-profile reparations hearings on Capitol Hill, economist Dr. Julianne Malveaux told The Root, “it’s an idea whose time has come.”
“Black labor is the foundational factor of the growth of this nation,” said Malveaux, who has studied economic gaps between racial groups for nearly 40 years. “We were not allowed to accumulate as others did, and we had to resist racist public policy. And all of those things are legacies.”
She also pointed out that reparations did not need to only take the form of cutting a one-time check to black Americans, as the AP poll seemed to suggest. While targeted economic compensation could be part of the conversation, Malveaux noted there are myriad ways to help the black community heal, like substantial government investment in historically black institutions and businesses.
Several colleges and universities have been grappling with how to deal with their relationship to slavery. Just last week, Princeton Theological Seminary (not affiliated with Princeton University) announced it would commit $27 million to scholarships and other initiatives to redress its history of benefitting from the slave economy and slaveowners. According to the New York Times, a recently completed investigation into the school’s history found 30 to 40 percent of the seminary’s pre-Civil War revenue could be linked to slavery.