On Sunday, democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro appeared on CNN’s "State of the Union" with Jake Tapper.
During the segment, Tapper spoke with Castro about the issue of reparations for descendants of slavery: "This is also dividing Democrats on the trail. You've said that there needs to be some kind of reparations to descendants of slaves to compensate for years of slavery and discrimination against African Americans in this country."
Tapper then played a clip in which presidential rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) talks about Castro’s and Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) support for reparations:
What do they mean? I'm not sure anyone's very clear. What I just said is that I think we must do everything that we can to address the massive level of disparity that exists in this country.
Tapper asked Castro: "So, what do you mean? Do you think that there should be actual monetary payments to descendants of slaves? Do support more like what Senator Sanders is talking about, policies such as child care and education that help those who are disadvantaged?"
Well, you know, what I said was that I've long believed that this country should address slavery, the original sin of slavery, including by looking at reparations, and if I'm president, then I'm going to appoint a commission or task force to determine the best way to do that. There's a tremendous amount of disagreement on how we would do that.
Castro then took a jab at Sanders, saying that he shouldn’t be arguing against an approach to reparations that might include "writing a big check" because that’s been the senator from Vermont’s position on health care and college tuition.
He concluded: "So, if under the Constitution, we compensate people because we take their property, why wouldn't you compensate people who actually were property?"
The notion of somehow compensating the ancestors of American slaves has long been a topic of discussion among academics and political thinkers. However, the mechanics by which a reparations program would operate have challenged even the most diligent.
On an episode of "Point Taken" on PBS regarding reparations, libertarian commentator Kmele Foster stated bluntly: "I think the important things to consider are, who pays? How much do they pay? And who do they pay it to? These are impossibly difficult questions to actually reconcile and answer in a meaningful and just way."
Even progressive author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his 2014 thesis on "the case for reparations" published in The Atlantic, didn’t come to any conclusion as to how reparations should work, writing in part:
Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
Coates does refer to a bill from former Rep. John Conyers as the beginning of a potential solution: "A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in [John] Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions."
Former President Obama even commented on the non-feasibility of a reparations program:
As a practical matter, it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence of historic wrongs, we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to make that right.
Instead, Obama pointed toward progressive redistributionist programs as a means of reparations:
[I am] not so optimistic as to think you would ever be able to garner a majority of the American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kind of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people.
As the Democratic presidential candidates gear up for a contentious primary season, they should be prepared to answer questions about reparations. With Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren already promoting the issue, it’s unlikely that it will fade silently into the night.