Reparation Discussions Are Gaining Traction But Not Widespread Support : Consider This from NPR Juneteenth, the celebration to commemorate the end of chattel slavery in the United States, is the newest federal holiday after President Biden signed it into law on Thursday. It's another example of how the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd has been reshaping the way Americans think and talk about race. That shift is also evident in reparation programs for Black descendants of slaves that are being enacted by groups around the country.

The Virginia Theological Seminary, for example, has started cutting checks to descendants of the forced labor the campus long relied on. The city of Evanston, Ill., has started to offer housing grants to its Black residents, and other progressive local governments are considering similar approaches.

Despite increasing interest in reparations, there is not yet widespread acceptance among Americans. A recent poll from the University of Massachusetts Amherst shows that two-thirds of the U.S. does not agree with cash reparations on a federal scale.

Professor Tatishe Nteta ran the poll. He explains what the findings say about the political future of reparations in the U.S.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Reparation Discussions Are Gaining Traction But Not Widespread Support

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

UMass Amherst professor Tatishe Nteta could introduce his students to the debate over reparations in a lot of different ways. But there's a reason he chooses this one...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHAPPELLE'S SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As character) And now, a News Center 3 Special Report with Frank Dobson and Chuck Taylor.

CORNISH: ...A comedy show sketch from the early 2000s...

TATISHE NTETA: It is a news report, right?

CORNISH: ...From Dave Chappelle.

NTETA: I show the skit almost every year when I teach.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHAPPELLE'S SHOW")

DAVE CHAPPELLE: (As Chuck Taylor) Our top story - as we all know, Congress recently approved paying over a trillion dollars to African Americans as reparations for slavery. Well, today the first checks were sent out.

CORNISH: The comedian is dressed as a gray-suited, ashen-faced anchor. To give you an idea of where this satire is headed, the scene starts at a liquor store.

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CHAPPELLE: (As Chuck Taylor) Wendy?

KATIE MCGEE: (As Wendy Mullin) Thanks, Chuck. We're standing here in front of the Olympic Liquor Store in Queens, where scores of African Americans have been lined up for hours. We spoke to a few of them earlier.

CORNISH: So picture Professor Nteta showing this to a room of college students - students who, let's face it, were too young to have seen the show the first time around, maybe even too young to remember when reparations for Black Americans were considered politically radical and unreasonable, when a sketch like this one would elicit laughter.

NTETA: And they're using them to buy expensive cars and rims and jewelry. And it connects with the widespread stereotype regarding the ways in which African Americans are frivolous with their money.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's right, baby. I just bought this truck straight cash, and I got enough cigarettes to last me and my family for the rest of our lives.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm rich, beotch (ph).

CORNISH: Nteta uses this sketch as a way to break the ice because talking about reparations can be awkward, especially if you don't acknowledge racist stereotypes.

NTETA: There is, I think, an underlying belief that if African Americans as a group are given reparations, are given cash payments, that this would be wasted by the community.

CORNISH: But this past year, in the aftermath of widespread social justice protests, Nteta actually did a formal poll about this, about what Americans today think of the idea of cash reparations.

NTETA: The most frequent explanation for why it is people oppose reparations are that African Americans and the descendants of slaves are undeserving of these cash payments.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, in part because of a national reckoning over race. We'll look at another shift following that reckoning - real attempts at reparations for the descendants of slaves and whether that shift could tip the scales towards bigger change.

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CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Friday, June 18.

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CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. A few months ago, the Virginia Theological Seminary started doing something that's basically unheard of. They started cutting actual checks to the descendants of enslaved Black people who used to work on campus - $2,100 sent every year.

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GERALD WANZER: I was skeptical and also elated.

CORNISH: This is Gerald Wanzer. His great-grandfather and other family members worked at the seminary, making him one of the beneficiaries of the new program.

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WANZER: Just to think that all of a sudden there would come up a program that was going to give recognition to the people who worked there in the past.

CORNISH: The most common approach for this kind of restitution is to set up something like a scholarship fund. But this - this is different.

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IAN MARKHAM: The truth is that these estates - Gerald Wanzer's estate was deprived of income because the seminary did not pay his forebearers for their labor.

CORNISH: Ian Markham is president and dean of the seminary. And he proposed the idea of just sending cash.

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MARKHAM: When you pay people for labor, you do not then designate what it should be spent on. That's the prerogative of the recipients. And when it's paid into their estate, it's the prerogative of the descendants. And therefore, to my mind, this is simple. You send them a check.

CORNISH: Markham says these $2,000 checks, though a small token - well, it's almost like sending a paycheck, albeit a few generations late.

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MARKHAM: Please spend it how you like. That's what everybody else does when they get compensation for their labor. That's what you do. That's what I do. That's what we should do here, too.

WANZER: I must say that a lot of the descendants were not happy with the program.

CORNISH: Here's Gerald Wanzer again, one of the recipients, speaking with my colleague, Ari Shapiro.

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WANZER: I have a brother that's 90 years old, and he just seems to be put off by all of a sudden, here we got - come up with people, white people, trying to come up and repair what happened in the past. But I don't agree with him.

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, tell us how you feel about it. What does it mean to you?

WANZER: I feel, show me the money (laughter). I'm all for it. I'm all for it because at last, we get some type of recognition. That's the word - recognition.

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CORNISH: The reason we're talking about a small Episcopalian seminary in Alexandria, Va., and not a new government-funded program is because, nationwide, cash reparations are unpopular.

NTETA: 62% of Americans oppose the idea of providing cash payments to the descendants of slaves.

CORNISH: Again, that's Tatishe Nteta, political science professor at UMass Amherst and Dave Chappelle fan. He recently ran a poll that asked Americans whether they support cash reparations and why or why not.

NTETA: The central group that opposes this program are Republicans, conservatives and Trump voters. And trying to explain why it is these folks oppose reparations, the central reason that they offer is that descendants of slaves do not deserve these cash payments. So it's not about the cost of these policies. It's not about the administration of these policies. The central reason is the belief that the descendants of slaves are not deserving of these cash payments.

CORNISH: Can I ask what the second-most popular reason was?

NTETA: Yeah. So the second-most popular reason is that it's impossible to place a monetary value on the impact of slavery. And when we look at the breakdown of who it is supported this notion, or at least those who opposed reparations and then selected this explanation, it tended to be progressives. It tended to be young people. It tended to be Democrats and Biden voters. So in explaining the popularity of this explanation for opposing reparations, in some ways it's individuals who may be allies of those who support reparations but recognize that any payment that is provided for the legacy of slavery would not be enough.

CORNISH: So those numbers - 62% of Americans oppose cash reparations and 38% support - that's actually up from past polling. In 2002, Gallup asked a similar question, and only 14% said they supported provisional reparations. Gallup asked again in 2019, and that number had moved up to 29%. And Nteta says the most recent jump, although slight, likely has something to do with the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed. This uptick in support comes after a long history of the U.S. government not buying in on cash reparations.

NTETA: You can go back to Field Order 15 in the wake of the Civil War and find low levels of support for the provision of 40 acres and a mule. You can go back to President Nixon, during another high point in the discussion of reparations, opposing reparations and in some cases offering affirmative action as a compromise to the payment of reparations. President Obama, the first African American president, when asked about reparations opposed the provision of cash payments to African Americans and supported the investment in education and the investment in jobs in African American communities. President Trump, when asked about reparations, made the claim that this is something that is likely not doable. And President Biden, when given an opportunity to discuss the issue of reparations at the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, was relatively quiet.

CORNISH: I want to think about this also in the context of just U.S. policy when it comes to giving cash payments in general. In a way, we're in the middle of that experiment with, like, COVID payments, right?

NTETA: We are in this really interesting experiment as to what happens when the federal government in this case provides to a widespread population of individuals cash payments, right? So we have that from the stimulus payments. And the interesting thing that's happening, if you look at what people are using this money for, they tend to be using the money to pay their rent, to pay down their debt, at some points in time, to buy new things. But those purchases are fueling the economy. And so we are in a moment here - and I think if proponents of reparations are really focused on trying to spread this policy across the country, to use this moment in time to demonstrate that African Americans and Americans more generally, when they receive cash payments, tend to act in the ways in which most people would not assume - right? - that would counter our stereotypes.

CORNISH: But you do hear some backlash in the form of, let's say, a Republican argument that is saying, look; people aren't motivated to find work because they are getting cash from the government. I mean, there is still this idea that this doesn't work the way the proponents of it say it will.

NTETA: Yeah. And so you're right. There, of course, is going to be backlash against the provision of cash payments, and likely by conservatives and Republicans given their ideological attachments and commitments. But the evidence demonstrates that individuals, when they receive these cash payments, particularly individuals at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, are using this money to address some of the financial issues that they have faced over the course of this year.

But at the same time, you know, this argument regarding the lack of motivation, the lack of work of individuals when they receive cash payments, you know, there's another way to look at this issue. It may not necessarily be that the provision of cash payments leads these folks to not work. It may be that the jobs that are not being filled are not paying enough. And as a country, we should start potentially looking at the level of payment for these jobs, these blue-collar jobs that are not being filled.

CORNISH: So where does that leave the U.S. in terms of this discussion? I mean, now that you've looked at these numbers, do you see a path forward where this movement continues or not?

NTETA: I think we're seeing the beginnings of this reparations movement. It's just not occurring at the national level. So we live in a federalist system. And, of course, there are benefits and costs to the federalist system. One of the benefits of a federalist system is that each locality, each town, each city, each state is an experiment in democracy. And we're finding that in places like Evanston and Iowa City and Asheville, N.C., and here in my backyard of Amherst, Mass., that local communities are beginning to not only discuss reparations for their African American neighbors and constituents, but are actually passing policies like we've seen in Evanston - innovative policies, policies which take the revenue from the sale of marijuana and create these housing reparations programs that we see in Evanston. We're seeing in places like San Francisco, again, discussions, real discussions about the legacy of discrimination, the legacy of racism that has shaped the contours and the demographics of that city and a real discussion about how that community is going to deal with this legacy and, again, make the African American community there whole. So I think we're seeing it at the local level. The question is whether or not that will spread from these very progressive cities to more conservative cities and then potentially to the nation as a whole.

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CORNISH: Tatishe Nteta, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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CORNISH: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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