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Cities may be debating reparations, but here's why most Americans oppose the idea

A reparations rally outside City Hall in San Francisco this month, as supervisors take up a draft reparations proposal. The growing number of local actions has renewed hopes and questions about a national policy.
Jeff Chiu
A reparations rally outside City Hall in San Francisco this month, as supervisors take up a draft reparations proposal. The growing number of local actions has renewed hopes and questions about a national policy.

Local reparations programs — in about a dozencities and the state of California — have renewed hopes for an eventual national policy to compensate for slavery. But after decades of lobbying and three years of a national reckoning over race, Americans overall remain strongly opposed to the idea.

When Tatishe Nteta began polling about it several years ago he expected money would be the biggest issue. Or perhaps the workability of such a complex undertaking. It turns out those are the smallest concerns among the two-thirds of Americans who say they're against cash payments to the descendants of slaves.

"A plurality of Americans," Nteta says, "don't believe the descendants of slaves deserve reparations."

The political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, plans more research to get at exactly why people think that. The other most common reasons opponents cite is that it's "impossible to place a monetary value on the impact of slavery" and "African Americans are treated equally in society today."

Nteta, and also the Pew Research Center, find about three-quarters or more of white adults oppose reparations, and so do a majority of Latinos and Asian Americans. A large majority of Black Americans support them. There's also more support among younger people and a sharp political divide, with overwhelming opposition from Republicans and conservatives.

The racial wealth gap challenges a core American narrative

On a recent sunny day on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., it was not hard to find reparations opponents willing to share their reasoning.

"You can't take what we know now and try to superimpose yourself onto 150 years ago," says Jeff Bernauer, visiting from Huntsville, Alabama. He calls racism a sin and says of course slavery was wrong. But to try and make amends at this point makes no sense.

"The generation that would be paying for it have nothing to do with what was done in the past," he says. "And then you're paying people that have nothing to do with it in the past."

Terry Keuhn of upstate New York agrees, and does not like the idea of a targeted program that would only help some people.

"We're all immigrants at some point, whether it was voluntary or forced," she says. "And nobody needs a handout anymore. Everybody, you know, pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps and works for a living and makes their way in this world."

That conviction — that hard work pays off — is a core narrative of the U.S., says Yale social psychologist Michael Kraus, and the notion of a persistent racial wealth gap clashes with it. He's surveyed people about this and thinks hisfindings help explain the broad opposition to reparations.

"A majority of our sample tends to think that we've made steady progress towards greater equality in wealth between families, so between black and white families," he says. "That is totally inconsistent with reality."

Most of those he surveyed thought that today, for every $100 dollars white families have, Black families have about $90. In fact, the racial wealth gap is exponentially larger. Given its magnitude, and the recent intense focus on racial justice around the country, Kraus calls this disconnect a kind of "collective willful ignorance."

Sure, he says, many people — especially white — may be isolated from those in different economic circumstances, and so find it difficult to fathom the enormous wealth gap. But he says it doesn't take much work to understand that Black people continue to be discriminated against in the job market, housing, banking, and other areas. He's come to believe that some — consciously or not — are avoiding information they may find uncomfortable.

The hope that an education campaign can change minds

Dorothy Brown is a convert on reparations. The Georgetown law professor dismissed the idea as impractical and unlikely, until she wrote a book about how even the U.S. tax system favors white families at the expense of Black ones. She decided the country's persistent wealth gap goes back to slavery, and so the only solution is reparations. Although she thinks they should be about systemic changes and not just cash.

"In 2 to 3 years that wealth would wind up in white hands, because our system for building wealth is not one designed for Black wealth," she says.

Brown is not daunted by the lack of public support. Her forthcoming book will make the case for reparations and she thinks many Americans are persuadable.

"Part of it is an education, it's a walk through history," she says. "It's a recognition that, okay, you may not have had anything to do with slavery, but ... your white grandfather got an FHA [Federal Housing Administration] insured loan. My grandfather couldn't because he was Black."

Brown sees a model in U.S. reparations for Japanese Americans who'd been interned during World War II.

Before the activist push for them, "fundamentally there was a lack of knowledge about what happened," says historian Alice Yang of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Then in 1980 and 1981, Congress held hearings in 20 cities around the country, and they included powerful testimony from people who'd been incarcerated with their families as children.

"Those hearings had a major impact on public perception of what happened during the war, how Japanese Americans were affected by it, and why redress might be appropriate," Yang says.

It helped convince some Japanese Americans who'd opposed the idea of reparations. But Yang says public opinion overall was not much of a factor. Japanese Americans at the time were only .5% of the population, mostly in California and Hawaii. The campaign for reparations was really about persuading members of Congress, and "if there had been a lot of public opinion opposing it, I think it might have affected [them] differently," Yang says.

"It's going to be ... decades"

Supporters of reparations for Black Americans consider a national program crucial. Explicitly racist federal policies were key in creating the wealth gap, and only the federal government could come anywhere close to compensating for harms that some have calculated at as much as $14 trillion. Brown sees local reparations as part of an education campaign for a national push, but others aren't sure whether they'll help or hurt.

Nteta, at U-Mass Amherst, believes some places are being mindful of the broad opposition to atoning for slavery. Evanston, Illinois, for example, is providing housing grants for residents who faced discrimination.

"It's not about slavery," Nteta says. "It's about the ways in which individuals who still are alive today were treated during a period of Jim Crow and institutionalized racism. So those people still exist."

If that or another program is deemed successful, he says, perhaps a national roadmap will emerge. But Yale researcher Kraus says they could also prompt backlash and reinforce misperceptions about the wealth gap.

"People could even use local reparations events as evidence that things are moving too fast and unnaturally towards equality, and so we need to stop and take a measured approach," he says.

Nteta already sees a general backlash. He says the debate over critical race theory and how to teach race in schools is "part and parcel of the debate about reparations," and yet another challenge to building support for them.

He says he wouldn't rule out an eventual policy, as young people more supportive of reparations replace older voters. But if it ever happens, "it's going to be, I think, decades."

In the Pew survey, even most supporters of reparations considered them unlikely to happen in their lifetime.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.