Former President Obama said earlier this week that the case for reparations for Black Americans is “justified,” but he added that the “politics of white resistance and resentment,” among other issues, made the prospect of pursuing the issue during his presidency a “non-starter.”
“So, if you ask me theoretically: ‘Are reparations justified?’ The answer is yes,” the former president said in an episode on he and Bruce Springsteen’s new “Renegades: Born in the U.S.A.” podcast that launched on Spotify earlier this week.
“There’s not much question that the wealth of this country, the power of this country was built in significant part — not exclusively, maybe not even the majority of it — but a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves,” he continued.
“What I saw during my presidency was the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens and the talk of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action,” he said, adding that “all that made the prospect of actually proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparations program struck me as, politically, not only a non-starter but potentially counterproductive.”
Obama previously spoke about reparations during his 2008 presidential campaign, saying in remarks at the time that while he agreed with “the underlying sentiment of recognizing the continued legacy of slavery” he had concerns about the issue.
“I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say ‘we’ve paid our debt’ and to avoid the much harder work of enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing; the much harder work of making sure that our schools are not separate and unequal; the much harder work of providing job training programs and rehabilitating young men coming out of prison every year; and the much harder work of lifting 37 million Americans of all races out of poverty,” he said then, according to The Washington Post.
“These challenges will not go away with reparations,” Obama also said then. “So while I applaud and agree with the underlying sentiment of recognizing the continued legacy of slavery, I would prefer to focus on the issues that will directly address these problems — and building a consensus to do just that.”
The case for reparations for Black Americans has picked up
on Capitol Hill in recent months after the country saw widespread protests against police brutality and racial inequality following the police killing of George Floyd.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) reintroduced H.R. 40, a bill then-Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) first filed in 1989 that sought to create a federal commission to explore reparations, back in January. The bill has more than 160 co-sponsors. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also introduced a companion bill in the Senate not long after that has racked up 17 co-sponsors.
Members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing last week to discuss the legislation, which has never been brought to a floor vote. The hearing was the first the panel has held on the issue in roughly two years.
Under the bill, the commission tasked with exploring reparations would examine slavery and discrimination in the country since 1619. It would also be required to make recommendations for remedies for Black Americans.
Proponents for the cause to provide restitution for Black Americans for slavery say reparations could be essential to helping address inequities and continued effects of slavery that presently exist for the community.
It also wouldn’t be the first time the country has paid reparations. The U.S. previously paid reparations to Japanese Americans that were interned during World War II.
Data released by the U.S. Federal Reserve Board’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finances last year showed large gaps in wealth continue to persist between white, Black and Hispanic families.
While the data showed that all ethnic groups have seen their income grow broadly in the past 30 years, the average wealth for Black American families in particular is 15 percent lower that of their white counterparts.
In comments to reporters earlier this month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that President Biden supports “a study of reparations.” She also added that he “continues to demonstrate his commitment to take comprehensive action to address this systemic racism that persists today.”