HARTFORD, Conn. _ When University of Connecticut professor Thomas Craemer first began researching reparations for slavery, most mainstream white politicians weren't talking about the issue.

Now, more than a dozen years later, the idea that African Americans should receive restitution for the grievous legacy of enslavement and racial discrimination is sparking a political debate that is helping to shape the 2020 presidential race.

"I'm surprised by this myself," said Craemer, an expert on racial bias and a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut in Hartford.

At the most recent Democratic presidential debate in July, several candidates expressed support for legislation, currently pending in Congress, that would create a commission to study restitution, including financial compensation, for the descendants of slaves.

Marianne Williamson, an author and spiritual leader, went further, and has proposed creating a "reparations commission" that would disperse $200 billion to $500 billion over the next 10 years "to promote education, infrastructure, and projects dedicated to black communities."

Williamson said it was "morally incumbent upon us to do in order to heal this ugly wound."

"When it comes to paying reparations for slavery, on an emotional, psychological and spiritual level, we cannot afford not to," Williamson said. "Until we do, this cycle of violence that began in the 1600s and continues to this day will continue to haunt our psyche."

Talk of reparations has been part of the national discourse since slavery was outlawed in the U.S. in 1865. Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, first introduced a bill back in 1989 that would establish a commission to examine the impact of slavery and racial discrimination and recommend remedies.

The discussion moved into the mainstream after author Ta-Nehisi Coates published an essay titled "The Case for Reparations" in The Atlantic in 2014.

In June, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on a bill sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, that would establish a panel to study reparations, just Conyers first proposed 30 years ago.

Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who is running for president, introduced a companion measure in the Senate. His campaign has emphasized efforts to address the legacy of slavery, including the racial wealth gap and other inequities.

Several other presidential candidates, including former Congressman Beto O'Rourke of Texas, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, support the idea of studying whether to provide direct restitution to the ancestors of enslaved Americans.

Some private universities, such as Yale, have examined their historic ties to slavery. And earlier this year, students at Georgetown University voted to create a fund to help descendants of 272 enslaved people once owned by the school.

Craemer said President Donald Trump's racist tweets have added new urgency to the conversation.

"Why is this coming up now?" Craemer asked. "It may be due to the climate that Trump has created with his explicit racist statements ... and now that racial issues have come to the fore, we are seeing more explicit demands from African Americans."

Cash reparations are unpopular with the public: A recent Gallup poll found that 67% of Americans oppose a monetary payout to the descendants of slaves.

The proposal has more support among Democrats: Half of those who identify with the party support cash compensation. Among African Americans, support for a monetary payout rises to 73%.

Critics of reparations say it would be difficult to determine who should receive compensation. "No one currently alive was responsible for that and I don't think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in June. "First of all, it'd be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate. We've had waves of immigrants as well come to the country and experience dramatic discrimination of one kind or another so no, I don't think reparations are a good idea."

Craemer said those details can be worked out. He worked as a pro bono consultant for about 200 direct descendants of Isaac Hawkins, one of the enslaved individuals sold by Georgetown to pay the school's debts.

"The issue of who is eligible is a political issue," Craemer said. "The U.S. government kept excellent records, so it can be done."

Craemer is German and he cited the compensation plan for victims of the Holocaust that was worked out by the German government.


While the call for reparations has found broad support among the Democratic party's progressive wing, some members of Connecticut's congressional delegation are not quite ready to embrace the idea.

"I don't favor a monetary reparations," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who has represented the New Haven area in Congress for almost 30 years. "I think we need to address the issue in a much broader term that brings economic justice and equality."

DeLauro noted that many groups have experienced "unspeakable discrimination," including women and Native Americans. "Now African Americans, in terms of slavery, I absolutely acknowledge that that has been a worse situation," she added, citing slavery and "forced family separation, rape, violence (and) lynching."

Sen. Chris Murphy expressed a willingness to have a discussion on reparations, but said he favors focusing on the entrenched effects of racial inequality over direct payments to descendants of enslaved people.

"I'm certainly interested and open to the conversation about reparations, but it seems like the more immediate goal should be to attack the unconscionable vestiges of America's slave past, like a justice system that disproportionately targets people of color, schools that use discipline systems to push African-American students out of the classroom, and neighborhoods all over America that are still segregated by race," Murphy said.

Rep. Jahana Hayes, a freshman from Wolcott who represents the 5th Congressional District and is the only African American member of Congress from Connecticut, agrees that the issue deserves more study.

"In order to manage a problem, you must first measure it," Hayes said. "That is why I support and cosponsored (a bill) to create a commission to study how the United States could implement reparations to the descendants of enslaved Americans. Merely having this conversation could lead to healing long standing wounds caused by the evil of slavery. We must acknowledge this problem and make meaningful efforts to begin to correct it."

That's an approach also supported by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. He is a co-sponsor of Cory Booker's bill to study the matter.

"We are long overdue a serious conversation confronting our nation's racial history _ the original sin of slavery, a century of Jim Crow, and the oppressive policies that followed," Blumenthal said. Booker's bill begins "addressing the centuries of injustice black communities have faced."

Reps. Joe Courtney and John Larson are both co-sponsors of Lee's reparations bill.

"The question of reparations has long gone unanswered for generations of African Americans," said Larson, who represents Hartford and its suburbs in Congress. "I firmly believe this question deserves an answer and we should not be afraid examine it. ... I fully support this effort to bring closure and justice to millions of families."

Courtney, who represents eastern Connecticut, said he, too, supports a study. He also backs establishing a legal avenue for direct descendants of enslaved people to pursue claims against specific institutions that profited from the slave trade. He cited a Norwich woman's lawsuit against Harvard University over photographs of her enslaved ancestor.


(c)2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): SLAVERY-REPARATIONS

The Hartford Courant