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McCain and Obama Make Reparations a Campaign Taboo

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Aug 07, 2008

Editor's Note: Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama are steering clear of the reparations issue, and there are plenty of reasons why, writes NAM editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson. Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back."

Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his Republican rival John McCain don't agree on much. But there's one thing that they not only agree on, but have made a campaign taboo, and that's reparations.

Obama flatly opposes reparations, and has repeated his position every time he is asked about compensation for slavery. McCain doesn't even bother taking a public position on reparations. It's such a foregone conclusion that he would oppose it that no one has even bothered to ask him about it on the campaign trail.

The candidates are running from the issue for reasons that make good political sense.

reparationsThey both read the opinion polls. A CNN/USA Today poll taken after blacks filed two well-publicized reparations lawsuits in 2002 found that 75 percent of Americans said that corporations should not pay reparations for slavery, and a whopping 90 percent said the government should not pay reparations.

Informal public opinion surveys show that whites, non-blacks, and even many blacks still think that reparations are a bad idea. National Urban League officials won't even discuss reparations. For them the issue is simply too racially charged and polarizing. The NAACP doesn't oppose reparations, but it's an issue that NAACP officials rarely broach in any of their public pronouncements. The few times it comes up they give the politically safe answer that Obama gave when asked about it: that the government should do more to create jobs and educational opportunities for the black poor.

Still, reparations advocates have grabbed at every argument in the book to dent the wall of public resistance. They insist that black billionaires, corporate presidents, superstar athletes and entertainers won't get a dime of reparations money, that it will go to programs to aid the black poor, that it won't guilt trip all whites, and that Japanese-Americans and Holocaust survivors have gotten reparations for the atrocities perpetrated against them. These arguments fall on deaf ears. The reparations movement just can't remove the public imprint that it is a movement exclusively of, by and for blacks.

Despite countless speeches pleading for racial brotherhood and interracial cooperation by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, that same tag was imprinted on the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. It took national shock and revulsion over the beating, maiming, and killing of white civil rights workers by Southern mobs and the massive presence of thousands of white students in Southern backwater towns before the civil rights movement gained widespread public and political acceptance as an authentic movement that would benefit labor, women, minorities and even whites.

The reparations movement does not possess the inherent racial egalitarianism of the civil rights movement. It is ensnared by its racial isolationism. The focus is solely to compensate the descendants of black slaves for the wrong of slavery, and whipsaw whites for present-day racism. Most whites applaud the fight to improve failing inner city public schools, provide better housing and health care, and battle drugs and the near-pandemic scourge HIV/AIDS among blacks. But they also believe that these are social ills that slam other minorities, the poor, and marginally employed working class whites, nearly as hard. Reparations advocates make no mention of this.

As a consequence, reparations come off as a hustle and scam to most whites that will flush their hard-earned tax dollars down the drain with nothing in return for them. In a time of soaring budget deficits, corporate meltdowns, the stock downslide, and the looming peril of massive layoffs that batter middle-class workers, reparations seem more than ever a frivolous issue that is politically divisive and racially polarizing.

That's the last thing Obama needs during the campaign. He's walking on the most fragile racial eggshells, and even the faintest hint that he has made race an issue in his campaign would do mortal damage to his election chances. He got a frightening glimpse of that when McCain jumped all over him for his offhanded comment that he doesn't look like all the other presidents on dollar bills. Unfortunately, any mention of reparations instantly smacks of race.

Despite colossal resistance to reparations, Obama has made, and McCain could make, the argument that it's in the interest of government and business to pump more funds into specific projects such as HIV/AIDS education and prevention, remedial education, job skills and training, drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation, computer access and literacy training programs. They will boost the black poor, not gut public revenues. This will not finger all whites as culpable for slavery.

Obama won't do that, and McCain can't do that. And even though the reparations question will from time to time continue to crop up, count on the candidates and politicians to keep it a taboo.

African American issues

Articles by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

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