2016 - President Obama explains why slavery reparations would be ‘hard’
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates took a deep dive into President Barack Obama’s tenure in office in several interviews for his “My President Was Black” series.
The second installment of their chat was released in the form of a transcript. The discussion largely focused on policy, particularly the achievement gap in the African-American community.
President Obama called for a more “vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws,” adding that when he entered office the country was in crisis, and if it hadn’t been, he might have done things a little differently.
“But as a general matter, my view would be that if you want to get at African American poverty, the income gap, wealth gap, achievement gap, that the most important thing is to make sure that the society as a whole does right by people who are poor, are working class, are aspiring to a better life for their kids,” Obama said.
He added that “higher minimum wages, full-employment programs, early-childhood education” are the types of programs that are universal, but since they often disproportionately benefit black people, many don’t see it that way.
But when the topic of slave reparations for African Americans came up, Obama warned of the difficulty proponents would face if such a feat was pursued.
“A society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it’s not in the form of individual reparations checks, but in the form of a Marshall Plan, in order to close those gaps. It is easy to make that theoretical argument,” he said.
“But as a practical matter, it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence of historic wrongs, we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to make that right.”
He added that it would require the country to “find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts. And what makes America complicated as well is the degree to which this is not just a black/white society, and it is becoming less so every year.
“So how do Latinos feel if there’s a big investment just in the African American community, and they’re looking around and saying, ‘We’re poor as well. What kind of help are we getting?’ Or Asian Americans who say, ‘Look, I’m a first-generation immigrant, and clearly I didn’t have anything to do with what was taking place.’”
To Obama’s point, Coates argued, “to the immigrant who comes here, first generation, and says, ‘I didn’t do any of this,’ but the country is largely here because of that. In other words, many of the benefits that you will actually enjoy are, in fact, in part—I won’t say largely—in part here because of the past. So when you want the benefits, when you invoke the past, that thus you inherit the debt, too.”
Doubling down on his skepticism, Obama said, “I’m not so optimistic as to think that you would ever be able to garner a majority of an American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kinds of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people.
“I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability, to mobilize the American people around a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country than I am in being able to mobilize the country around providing a benefit specific to African Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow.”
The president said that he wants his girls to understand, “that they’ve got responsibilities beyond just what they themselves have done. That they have a responsibility to the larger community and the larger nation, that they should be sensitive to and extra thoughtful about the plight of people who have been oppressed in the past, are oppressed currently. So that’s a wisdom that I want to transmit to my kids.”