Cities may be debating repairs, but here's why most Americans oppose the idea (2023)

A repair rally outside San Francisco City Hall this month as officials consider a draft repair proposal. The growing number of local actions has raised new hopes and questions about national politics.Jeff Chiu/AP hide title

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Jeff Chiu/AP

Cities may be debating repairs, but here's why most Americans oppose the idea (2)

A repair rally outside San Francisco City Hall this month as officials consider a draft repair proposal. The growing number of local actions has raised new hopes and questions about national politics.

Jeff Chiu/AP

Local repair programs - about a dozencitiesand the state ofCalifornia– have raised new hopes for an eventual national slavery compensation policy. But after decades of lobbying and three years of national racial reckoning, Americans as a whole remain staunchly opposed to the idea.

When Tatishe Nteta started voting on this a few years ago, she expected money to be the biggest issue. Or perhaps the feasibility of such a complex endeavor. As it turns out, these are the least of the worries.two-thirdsof Americans who say they are against cash payments to the descendants of slaves.

"Many Americans," says Nteta, "do not believe that the descendants of slaves deserve reparation."


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The political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, plans to do more research to find out exactly why people think that. The other most commonreasonsOpponents cite that it is "impossible to quantify the impact of slavery in monetary terms" and that "African-Americans are treated equally in today's society."

Nteta, and also thePew Research Center, find that about three-quarters or more of white adults oppose reparations, as do the majority of Latino and Asian Americans. A large majority of black Americans support them. There is also more support among young people and a sharp political divide with overwhelming opposition from Republicans and conservatives.

The racial wealth gap challenges a Central American narrative

On a sunny day on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., it wasn't hard to find opponents willing to share their arguments.

"You can't try to superimpose what we know today with what we knew 150 years ago," says Jeff Bernauer, of visiting Huntsville, Alabama. He calls racism a sin and says that of course slavery is wrong. But trying to make amends at this point is pointless.

“The generation that would pay for it has nothing to do with what was done in the past,” he says. "And then you pay people who have nothing to do with it in the past."

Terry Keuhn, from upstate New York, agrees, and doesn't like the idea of ​​a specific program that would only help a few people.

“We are all migrants at some point, whether voluntary or forced,” he says. “And no one needs charity anymore. Everyone, you know, gets up and works for a living and makes their way in this world."


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This belief, that hard work pays off, is a central US narrative, says Yale social psychologist Michael Kraus, and the notion of a persistent racial wealth gap clashes with it. He has surveyed people on the subject and believes that hisResultshelp explain the widespread opposition to reparations.

“Most of our sample tends to believe that we have made steady progress toward greater equality of wealth between families, that is, between black and white families,” he says. "That is absolutely not the reality."

Most of the people he interviewed thought that for every $100 white families have today, black families have about $90. In fact, the racial wealth gap is exponentialgreater than. Given its scale and the recent intense focus on racial justice across the country, Kraus calls this division a kind of "collective willful ignorance."

Sure, he says, many people, especially whites, may be isolated from people in other economic circumstances and therefore find it difficult to understand the vast wealth gap. But he says it doesn't take much work to understand that black people continue to face discrimination in work, housing, banking and other areas. He has come to believe that some consciously or unconsciously avoid information that might make them uncomfortable.

The hope that an awareness campaign can change opinions

Dorothy Brown is a convert to repairs. The Georgetown law professor dismissed the idea as impractical and improbable until she wrote aBuchabout how even the American tax system favors white families at the expense of black ones. He decided that the country's persistent wealth gap stems from thisslavery, so the only solution is repairs. Although she believes it should be about systemic change and not just about money.

“In 2 or 3 years, that wealth would end up in white hands because our wealth accumulation system is not designed for black wealth,” he says.

Brown is not intimidated by the lack of public support. Her next book will advocate for reparations, and she believes she can win over many Americans.


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"Part of it is an education, it's a walk through history," she says. "It's an acknowledgment that you may not have had anything to do with slavery, but ... your white grandfather received an FHA [Federal Housing Administration] insured loan. My grandfather couldn't do this because he was black ".

Brown sees a model in the US.compensationfor Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

Before the activist push, "there was a fundamental lack of knowledge about what happened," says historian Alice Yang of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Then, in 1980 and 1981, Congress held hearings in 20 cities across the country, and they contained powerful testimony from people who had been incarcerated with their families as children.

"These hearings had a huge impact on public perception of what happened during the war, how Japanese Americans were affected, and why reparations might be appropriate," Yang says.

He helped convince some Japanese Americans thatin contrast withthe idea of ​​redemption. But Yang says that general public opinion has not played a big role. Japanese Americans made up only 0.5% of the population at the time, mostly in California and Hawaii. The reparations campaign was really about persuading members of Congress, and "if there had been a lot of public opinion against it, it might have affected [them] differently," Yang says.

"It will be... decades"

Supporters of reparations for black Americans believe that a national program is crucial. Explicitly racist federal policies were key to creating the wealth gap, and only the federal government could even come close to undoing the damage some have claimed so high.14 trillion dollars. Brown sees local repairs as part of an awareness campaign for a national push, but others aren't sure if it will help or hurt.

U-Mass Amherst's Nteta believes some places are aware of the widespread opposition to atonement for slavery. Evanston, Illinois, for example, provides housing benefits to residents who have been discriminated against.

The picture shows

Photos: What does repair mean to me?

“This is not about slavery,” says Nteta. "It's about how people who are still alive today were treated in the days of Jim Crow and institutionalized racism. So these people still exist."

If this or another program is deemed successful, perhaps a national roadmap will emerge, he says. But Yale researcher Kraus says they could also generate backlash and reinforce misconceptions about the wealth gap.

"People might even use local repair events as evidence that things are moving towards equality too quickly and unnaturally, and that's why we need to stop and take a measured approach," he says.

Nteta is already seeing a general reaction. He says the debate over critical race theory and how to teach race in schools is "an integral part of the reparations debate" and another challenge in building support for them.

He says he wouldn't rule out an eventual policy since young supporters of the reparations are replacing older voters. But if it ever happens, "I think it will be decades."

In the Pew poll, even most supporters of the reparations thought it unlikely they would happen while they were alive.


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