The Future of the Reparations Movement?

By Dr. Alfred Brophy

Like everyone else this spring, I’ve been captivated by politics. One of the things that interests me about Senator Obama’s campaign (and particularly his Philadelphia speech on race) is how he’s talking about moving beyond our current attitudes towards race–and perhaps changing our approach towards affirmative action. In the his Pennsylvania debate, he seemed to be moving away from affirmative action based on race and more towards affirmative action based on measures of economic need. (He observed that his daughters did not need affirmative action, but some poor white children do.)

So this leads me to all sorts of questions about where an Obama presidency would head on issues like affirmative action and reparations. Politically, the reparations movement is a non-starter. Something like 5% of white people are in favor of reparations. So if I were giving any advice to a political candidate, I’d say “stay away!” And I think that’s what everyone’s doing.

However, I also think that reparations movement has contributed a lot to discussion about race–in both parties. President Bush’s speech at Goree Island in 2003, where he acknowledged the long road we still have ahead, is one product of the discussion of reparations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. So while the movement hasn’t made a ton of progress directly, I think it’s helped shape how we all talk–and perhaps how we think as well.

But perhaps the movement–having made important contributions to the public debate–is now shifting. Maybe we’re going to a new place politically, where race is less of a factor and need plays a great role. Perhaps what we’ll see is a renewed call for “Great Society” social welfare programs, where people who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had been able to share fully in the bounties our country has to offer, are given a greater opportunity to participate. People of all races may have more opportunities for head start programs, better elementary and secondary schools, better health care. We’ll see, but maybe that will be the legacy of the reparations movement.
(I talk a bunch more about this in Reparations Pro and Con.)

Dr. Alfred Brophy is a professor of law.

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