Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama opposes offering reparations to the descendants of slaves, putting him at odds with some black groups and leaders.
The man with a serious chance to become the nation’s first black president argues that government should instead combat the legacy of slavery by improving schools, health care and the economy for all.
"I have said in the past — and I’ll repeat again — that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed," the Illinois Democrat said recently.
Some two dozen members of Congress are co-sponsors of legislation to create a commission that would study reparations — that is, payments and programs to make up for the damage done by slavery.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People supports the legislation, too. Cities around the country, including Obama’s home of Chicago, have endorsed the idea, and so has a major union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Obama has worked to be seen as someone who will bring people together, not divide them into various interest groups with checklists of demands. Supporting reparations could undermine that image and make him appear to be pandering to black voters.
"Let’s not be naive. Sen. Obama is running for president of the United States, and so he is in a constant battle to save his political life," said Kibibi Tyehimba, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. "In light of the demographics of this country, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect him to do anything other than what he’s done."
But this is not a position Obama adopted just for the presidential campaign. He voiced the same concerns about reparations during his successful run for the Senate in 2004.
There’s enough flexibility in the term "reparations" that Obama can oppose them and still have plenty of common ground with supporters.
The NAACP says reparations could take the form of government programs to help struggling people of all races. Efforts to improve schools in the inner city could also aid students in the mountains of West Virginia, said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau.
"The solution could be broad and sweeping," Shelton said.
The National Urban League — a group Obama is to address Saturday — avoids the word "reparations" as too vague and highly charged. But the group advocates government action to close the gaps between white America and black America.
Urban League President Marc Morial said he expects his members to press Obama on how he intends to close those gaps and what action he would take in the first 100 days of his presidency.
"What steps should we take as a nation to alleviate the effects of racial exclusion and racial discrimination?" Morial asked.
The House voted this week to apologize for slavery. The resolution, which was approved on a voice vote, does not mention reparations, but past opponents have argued that an apology would increase pressure for concrete action.
Obama says an apology would be appropriate but not particularly helpful in improving the lives of black Americans. Reparations could also be a distraction, he said.
In a 2004 questionnaire, he told the NAACP, "I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say, ‘We’ve paid our debt,’ and to avoid the much harder work."
Taking questions Sunday at a conference of minority journalists, Obama said he would be willing to talk to American Indian leaders about an apology for the nation’s treatment of their people.
Pressed for his position on apologizing to blacks or offering reparations, Obama said he was more interested in taking action to help people struggling to get by. Because many of them are minorities, he said, that would help the same people who would stand to benefit from reparations.
"If we have a program, for example, of universal health care, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because they’re disproportionately uninsured," Obama said. "If we’ve got an agenda that says every child in America should get — should be able to go to college, regardless of income, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because it’s oftentimes our children who can’t afford to go to college."
One reparations advocate, Vernellia Randall, a law professor at the University of Dayton, bluntly responded: "I think he’s dead wrong."
She said aid to the poor in general won’t close the gaps — poor blacks would still trail poor whites, and middle-class blacks would still lag behind middle-class whites. Instead, assistance must be aimed directly at the people facing the after-effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws, she said.
"People say he can’t run and get elected if he says those kinds of things," Randall said. "I’m like, well does that mean we’re really not ready for a black president?"