U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has rejected reparations for slavery, an idea that is estimated to cost trillions of dollars.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday when asked whether he supported reparations for slavery.
“We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.”
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Apart from citing the election of former President Barack Obama as one way the nation has dealt with its “original sin of slavery,” the Republic lawmaker believes that it would be hard to know whom to pay.
“I think we’re always a work in progress in this country but 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,” he was quoted by the CNN.
“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.”
McConnell’s comments came a day before a Democratic-led House subcommittee was scheduled to hold a hearing on reparations, featuring testimony from actor and activist Danny Glover and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others.
The topic of reparations has made headlines in recent times as Democratic 2020 presidential candidates throw their weight behind the idea. This February, U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful, Elizabeth Warren, announced her full support for reparations for black Americans affected by slavery.
“We must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences including undermining the ability of Black families to build wealth in America for generations,” Warren, who is white, said in a statement to Reuters.
“Black families have had a much steeper hill to climb – and we need systemic, structural changes to address that,” she added while mentioning a bill she had introduced in Congress that would help minorities in making a down payment on a home.”
The belief that white Americans owe black Americans a moral debt for compensation for slavery, Jim Crow and long-standing racism has been ongoing since emancipation.
Attitudes towards reparations for slavery tend to polarise the country, with whites highly against reparations while blacks tend to support. Those who support reparations say it is necessary to help redress the wrongs of slavery and racial discrimination.
It would also help to resolve the continuing troubles of America’s black community. It is documented that “black Americans’ continuing poverty is a result of America deliberately frustrating the efforts of black Americans to accumulate and retain wealth until the 1980s.”
Critics of reparation, however, doubt the impact of slavery today, adding that it would be difficult to make fair calculations as to how much victims would take and in what form, considering the years involved.
Even though Warren did not provide any specifics about what her plan would be towards reparations, experts note that her move is significant considering previous Democratic presidential candidates have not supported reparations.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who recently announced his 2020 bid, was not in favour of reparations in 2016, describing it as politically unpalatable and “very divisive.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who beat Sanders for the 2016 nomination, was also against reparations. Barack Obama, America’s first black president further called the idea of reparations impractical in 2016.
Warren has been trying to woo black voters, who were about 25 percent of those participating in primaries and caucuses in 2016, reports the Washington Post.
“America has an ugly history of racism,” Warren said. “We need to confront it head-on. And we need to talk about the right way to address it and make change.”
Nationwide polling shows, however, that compensation for those affected by slavery is an unpopular policy.
In the journal Social Science Quarterly, a University of Connecticut researcher, Thomas Craemer estimated that it would cost between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion to give historical reparations.
The journal, cited by Newsweek, said Craemer came up with those figures by tabulating how many hours all slaves worked in the United States from when the country was officially established in 1776 until 1865 when slavery was officially abolished.
He subsequently multiplied the amount of time they worked by average wage prices at the time, and then a compounding interest rate of 3 percent per year to calculate the reparation figure.
“Reparations will never bring one life back, and it’s totally inadequate to the terror of the [past], but having a meaningful symbol of reparations is a good thing, not just for recipients but for the people who provide it,” Craemer said.
Meanwhile, during Obama’s presidency, the House and the Senate passed resolutions apologizing for slavery. Several states have also formally apologized for slavery, including Arkansas and Alabama. However, the state of Kentucky, which McConnell represents, has not.