Brookings: What are White Americans' Attitudes Toward Reparations?Breaking News
tags: racism, public opinion, reparations
Ashley V. Reichelmann: Assistant Professor of Sociology - Virginia Tech, Associate Director - Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention
Matthew O. Hunt: Professor of Sociology - Northeastern University
The United States is again at a crossroads of racial reckoning. The death of George Floyd and the 2020 summer of protests for racial justice added new urgency to ongoing discussions about the legacy of slavery and its contemporary implications for the lives of Black Americans. A key question at the root of this discussion is: how do we repair the harm – economic, physical, and psychological — caused to Black lives by slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, police brutality, and other manifestations of systemic racism?
The United States has used reparations—targeted initiatives intended to concretely repair a harm against a person or persons resulting from the collective action of others—as a means of acknowledging and atoning for its role in other atrocities, including the internment of Japanese Americans and the forced removal and destruction of six indigenous communities: the Ottawas of Michigan, the Chippewas of Wisconsin, the Seminoles of Florida, the Sioux of South Dakota, the Klamaths of Oregon, and the Alaska Natives. However, the descendants of Africans enslaved on U.S. soil have been notably absent from this history of reparative actions. While the task of reparations seems daunting to many Americans considering the scale of injustice presented by slavery and its aftermath, we believe this is a conversation the country needs to have.
Recent polling data documents Americans’ general opposition to reparations in the form of financial payments to Black Americans as compensation for slavery. In 2014, 68% of those polled opposed such payments while only 15% supported them (17% were unsure). More recent polling in 2020 and 2021 suggests generally comparable results; in 2020, 63% of those polled were opposed to cash payments (31% supported; 6% had no opinion), while in 2021, 62% opposed (38% supported). There are also indications that this robust opposition remains despite a growing awareness of contemporary racial inequality – suggesting strongly that a racial awakening alone may not substantially alter policy views.
Support for reparations differs strongly across ethno-racial lines in the United States. In the 2014 poll, 79% of white Americans opposed cash payments as a form of reparations (6% supported; 15% were unsure). In contrast, only 19% of Black Americans were opposed (59% supported and 22% were unsure). In the 2021 poll, 72% of white Americans opposed this form of reparation (28% supported), while only 14% of Black Americans did (86% supported). Commonly-cited reasons for white Americans’ opposition to reparations include the difficulty of determining the monetary value of the impact of slavery alongside the fact that no one directly involved in the practice of slavery is still living. Other reasons center around the denial of any ongoing legacy of slavery and corresponding concerns about the undeserving nature of prospective recipients of reparations.
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