With the 2020 presidential election drawing ever nearer, Democrats are increasingly promoting the issue of reparations for slavery, with a number of prominent party members now attempting to cement their position on the controversial topic.
Now, a growing number of Democrat presidential hopefuls, including Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and others, have appeared willing to discuss the issue, which many experts believe could lead to a major fissure within the party.
A recent bill introduced by Booker and Democrat Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, which calls for a “study” into the steps necessary to implement policies regarding reparations, is gaining support from far-left Democrats including Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
For Democrats, issues such as reparations for slavery, late-term abortions, and confiscation of firearms have become major talking points as younger liberal voters continue to embrace radical ideology, further alienating traditional party members.
Democrats have sidestepped the debate over reparations for African-Americans for decades. But now the issue is bubbling up in the House, and the new majority is wrestling with how to tackle it ahead of the 2020 campaign.
Sparked in part by the support of several presidential contenders, the topic has been discussed multiple times by top House Democrats, including at their retreat in the exurbs of Virginia earlier this month.
But the issue is likely to divide the party — not just by race, but by generation. The Congressional Black Caucus is notably split, with some younger African-American lawmakers clamoring to force the conversation into the open while more senior members worry about alienating moderate voters.
“I’m glad that we’re having this discussion and I’m glad that it seems to be an adult discussion for a change,” said House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African-American in Congress. “We’re just getting people to understand that reparations, by definition, means ‘to amend.’ Now the question is how do we make amends?”
A discussion over reparations isn’t without risk, however, according to Clyburn and some other senior lawmakers and aides. Forcing the issue would likely open Democrats up to attacks from Republicans during the 2020 race.
But avoiding it — especially with Democrats controlling the House with the most diverse caucus in history — could also turn off voters of color who think it’s an important conversation to have, especially with President Donald Trump in the White House and white nationalism on the rise.
“As this administration has seemed to be forcing certain issues, I think that everybody wants to have an honest discussion about everybody who is in this country,” Clyburn said.
That Democrats are seriously entertaining such a response to the bitter legacy of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans underscores how quickly the party has shifted in recent years. While Barack Obama opposed reparations as a presidential candidate, White House hopefuls like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro have warmed to it.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another presidential candidate, has introduced a companion bill to legislation sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) that would create a commission to study the idea of reparations.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, said she believes the House could act on the issue in some way this year.
One option is the proposal from Jackson Lee — legislation first introduced in 1989 by former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), but that never gained traction.
Jackson Lee’s bill has nearly 50 co-sponsors and she told POLITICO she was preparing to send a “Dear colleague” letter in the next few weeks to solicit more support within the caucus. Jackson Lee also said she expects her bill to receive a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also publicly expressed support for the bill, though Democratic leaders have not made any commitment for a floor vote.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has voiced support for reparations several times in recent months. And fellow freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who now represents’ Conyers Detroit-area district, is a staunch supporter of Jackson Lee’s bill.