Would President Obama receive a payment if reparations were agreed to? | News Coverage from USA

Would President Obama receive a payment if reparations were agreed to?


If the United States made amends for its history of slavery through reparations, would former President Barack Obama be eligible to receive a payment? It’s an interesting question that frames some of the thornier problems with the proposal.

The most obvious issue is that Obama’s father was African, not a descendant of American slaves or raised in African-American culture. Also, his white mother was a descendant of those who held people in bondage, and Obama noted in his autobiography “Dreams from My Father” that there was a family legend he was related to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. From a genealogical perspective, Obama is on the wrong side of history. 

This raises the issue of culpability. It is hard to make the case for reparations on an individual basis, because all the people directly involved in American slavery, both victims and culprits, are long since passed on. And parsing out the bloodlines of descendants to determine who is eligible or responsible is not only complicated, it also raises disturbing parallels to the exclusionary logic used by segregationists, not to mention the Nuremberg Race Laws. 

Finding collective guilt 

The issue becomes a matter of collective victimhood and collective guilt, spanning many generations. But there is no basis for this in American law or tradition. The sins of the parents are not visited on the children, especially after 150 years. Plus, many people have no family connections to the America of those times: More immigrants arrived in the United States in the three decades after the Civil War than had come during the preceding three centuries combined, and even more arrived in the first decade and a half of the 20th century.

Only a small group of people in a limited number of states actually held slaves. Furthermore, those with ancestors who fought for the Union against slavery — one of Obama’s great-great-grandfathers was a decorated Union veteran — may claim to be exempt from the collective responsibility. Some might consider the more than 600,000 Union deaths to be payment in full. (Not to mention the 2 million additional men who risked their lives in the Union Army to abolish slavery.)

With respect to payment, estimates of the costs range from the billions to the trillions. Would this be a one-time grant or a continuing annuity? And would the payment be means-tested? Multimillionaires like Obama and other African Americans in upper income groups seem more like representatives of American possibility rather than victims of what writer Ta-Nehisi Coates described as a “relentless campaign of terror.” 

Check out a range of voices: We need debate over reparations until inequality no longer with us

But is this issue just about slavery? Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris — also not a descendant of American slaves — argues that the issue is much broader: “America has a history of 200 years of slavery. We had Jim Crow. We had legal segregation in America for a very long time.” 

Some reparations proponents acknowledge that culpability for slavery cannot be nailed down specifically, but that the reparations issue is part of a broader debate about social justice and helping the poor. Democratic presidential aspirant Amy Klobuchar said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “it doesn’t have to be a direct pay for each person. But what we can do is invest in those communities, acknowledge what’s happened.”

Yet hasn’t this been happening already? It is strange to argue that the history of American slavery has not been acknowledged. It is ubiquitous in history curricula and popular culture. The National Park Service is required by law to emphasize the role of slavery in history at its Civil War sites. And community development and other programs designed to ameliorate the impact of systemic racism have been fixtures of the political system at least since the civil rights acts and Great Society programs of the 1960s. When proponents of reparations broaden the issue to that degree, they arrive at arguing for solutions that are already being implemented.

And by detaching the issue from slavery, they open the door to other groups that may feel they have a claim against American society writ large. We saw this when presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren proposed reparations for gay couples based on discrimination in the tax code. 

Obama opposed reparations

Even the word “reparation” is problematic. Obama, who did not pursue this issue during his presidency, noted in 2004 that the concept and its implication of a one-time payoff “would be an excuse for some to say we’ve paid our debt” and not continue efforts to promote racial harmony.

It is unlikely that a reparation would repair anything but instead widen the breach. It is more likely to conjure indignation among Americans who will resent being lumped into a class of the collectively guilty for things they never did. Others may see this issue as a cynical political move, Democrats trying to energize the African-American base at a time when employment is at record highs and the Trump reelection campaign is planning a vigorous outreach campaign to minority voters. 

Action: How to shrink the wealth gap for minorities and everyone else while we study reparations

Obama’s presidential election in 2008 was symbolic of our national progress and overcoming the issues that reparations proponents want to revisit. He and other successful African Americans are testaments to the opportunities that our country offers everyone regardless of race or ethnicity. Reparations backer Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called this viewpoint ignorant, but in fact it is informed by the same optimistic view of the country that supports his own pursuit of the Oval Office.

If American society is as racist and stained with collective guilt as Sen. Booker seems to believe, why would he ever think he could win the White House in 2020? Because, to use one of President Obama’s favorite expressions, that’s not who we are.

James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins

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