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Excerpted From: Michael Conklin, An Uphill Battle for Reparationists: A Quantitative Analysis of the Effectiveness of Slavery Reparations Rhetoric, 10 Columbia Journal of Race and Law 33 (2020) (112 Footnotes) (Full Document)
On Juneteenth (June 19), 2019 the United States House Judiciary Committee heard over three hours of testimony regarding slavery reparations. Various rhetorical methods were used by the expert witnesses to promote slavery reparations. Many emphasized the horrors of the slave trade. Many pointed to current racial disparities in education, criminal justice, and health as indicators that the harms of slavery are still present today. Others testified how the rising/increasing success of America is in large part attributable to slave labor. A White woman discussed the liberating power she experienced when she discovered and then addressed her ancestors' involvement in the slave trade. Loyola Law School Professor Eric Miller used the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot of 1921 and the reparations that followed as a precedent for the importance and feasibility of reparations. It is unlikely that these arguments had any ultimate effect on the politicians of the House Judiciary Committee to whom they were addressed. As evidenced by the prepared scripts that the committee members were reading from, they all likely had their minds made up in advance. But how effective would these experts' arguments have been to change the average American's position on slavery reparations? And would the efficacy differ when examining subsets of the population, such as conservatives and liberals? What if a particular pro-slavery reparations argument was presented by a White person instead of an African American, would that change the way it was received? This essay presents the findings of a survey designed to answer those questions.
Much has been written about the debate in academe regarding slavery reparations. However, with the recent surge in the popularity of reparations-- demonstrated by sixteen of the twenty Democratic 2020 presidential frontrunners expressing support for slavery reparations focus should be on the more pragmatic aspects of persuading the public on the issue. This is the main obstacle to successful implementation of a slavery reparations scheme. By evaluating potential explanations for why certain reparations rhetoric is more effective than others--and how some even do more harm than good--this study will help to inform reparationists on the effectiveness of different rhetorical tactics. Furthermore, the often counterintuitive results call into question common assumptions about the root causes of slavery reparation opposition. While the results of this study will prove valuable to reparationists, they still face steep challenges to the ultimate goal of implementing a slavery reparations scheme. This essay also discusses these impediments such as the anti-reparations norm, specific implementation challenges, the risk of self-sabotage, legal challenges, and the incompatibility with American individualism.
A. Reparations Defined
When asked about slavery reparations in 2019, Bernie Sanders responded, "[w]hat does that mean? What do they mean? I'm not sure that anyone's very clear ...." While perhaps an attempt to avoid providing a direct answer to the question, Sanders' confusion is well justified. The word "reparations" has been used to refer to a broad spectrum of policies.
Kamm Howard, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA) defined reparations as "anything that helps people of African descent in this country build wealth," but not "[f]ar-reaching programs that are nonracial programs ...." Reparationist Ta-Nehisi Coates defined repa-rations as "more than recompense for past injustices--more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal." Others propose the creation of separate states for Blacks as reparations. In 2018, New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon claimed that prioritizing African Americans for marijuana dispensary licenses was "a form of reparations." Some scholars include affirmative action and apologyies in the category of reparations. Some define lawsuits against corporations for their role in facilitating the Holocaust as reparations. There are even groups that seek to repair environmental harm under an "environmental reparations" theory. Stretching the definition of slavery reparations too thin effectively renders the term devoid of any practical meaning. Simply stating, as some do, that slavery reparations encompasses anything that helps modern-day African Americans overcome the lasting effects of slavery is too broad. This definition would include progressive taxation rates, social safety nets, and education subsidies. This overly broad definition would place nearly every Washington politician in the pro-slavery reparations camp. For the purposes of this paper, "reparations" is defined in the narrow sense of a cash transfer from a government for a past wrong.
B. Brief Global History
Before the twentieth century, the payment of reparations was largely limited to instances of the losing state in a war agreeing to make payments to the victorious state as an element of peace negotiations. Within the last 100 years, however, examples have diversified. Iraq continues to pay reparations for the Gulf War. West Germany paid Holocaust reparations after World War II. The U.S. paid reparations to compensate Indian tribes in 1946. Some have defined the government's 1975 Tuskegee Syphilis Study settlement as reparations. In 1994, Florida compensated survivors and descendants of the 1923 Rosewood race riot and massacre. Also notable is that, while no financial compensation was given, in 1993, the U.S. federal government issued an apology for loss of lands due to the 1893 Hawaiian annexation. Interestingly enough, the United States has been involved in a slavery reparations scheme. The United Kingdom compensated Southern planters more than $1,000,000 for encouraging their slaves to run away during the War of 1812. C. Modern Resurgence
Support for slavery reparations in the U.S. has ebbed and flowed over the last sixty years. The movement gained momentum in the late 1960s and then slowed down until gaining momentum again in the late 1990s. While still far from reaching majority support among Americans, slavery reparations has recently experienced another surge in popularity. In 2016, a United Nations panel concluded that the U.S. owes African Americans reparations for a legacy of "racial terrorism." Georgetown students voted in 2019 to increase student fees in order to pay reparations to descendants of the slaves sold by the school in 1838. A Google Trends search for "reparations" among U.S. Google searches shows a dramatic spike in 2019. In every congressional term since 1989, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) has proposed a bill to study and develop slavery reparations. The bill for the 2019-2020 term has fifty-five co-sponsors, the most ever. A 2019 survey found 13% support for slavery reparations among White Americans, which is more than a 300% increase from the only 4% support from White Americans in 2013. Sixteen of the twenty Democratic candidates for president in the first round of the 2020 NBC presidential debates have, in some way, expressed support for reparations. Compare that to the 2016 Democratic primary where all three candidates on the ballot in Iowa expressly rejected reparations. Although Barack Obama arguably supported the general idea of reparations through social policy and investment, he was consistently against cash reparations stating that he opposed, "just signing checks over to African-Americans." Likewise, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton all avoided supporting cash reparations for slavery.
However, it is important to emphasize that this recent support for slavery reparations among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates does not correspond to the levels of support from the party. In 2019, only 34% of Democrats support slavery reparations in the form of cash payments. It is possible that supporting slavery reparations is nevertheless a wise strategic move for these candidates since African Americans play a significant role "in the early voting states of South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia." But even among African Americans, support for slavery reparations is less than 60%. It is unclear exactly why this resurgence in the slavery reparations movement is occurring. It is somewhat counterintuitive for the reparations movement to gain support the further chronologically removed we become from slavery. Conversely, perhaps this correlation is to be expected given that the further removed from slavery we become, the easier it is to look at the government's past actions more objectively. Another potential explanation for the current resurgence is that the presidency of Barack Obama from 2009-2016 effectively assuaged White guilt on the issue. Therefore, we are now picking up where the momentum of the early 2000s left off. Additionally, the recent Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump presidency may have caused people to reconsider issues of race.
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The modern resurgence in advocacy for slavery reparations should be met with cautious optimism by reparationists. There is still a long way to go in persuading the average American, and many components combine to increase the challenge. The findings discussed in this article provide some guidance for the ways in which discourse and rhetoric impact average Americans, and therefore how to pragmatically and purposefully deploy such strategies for persuasion. Further, this study provides a framework for additional and more comprehensive analyses of related issues including the consequences of integrating pro- and anti-reparations rhetoric, the magnitude and precise effect of the anti-reparations norm, and how various demographic groups are impacted by particular rhetorical approaches.
Powell Endowed Professor of Business Law, Angelo State University.
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