If the Democrats are to take back the White House, then they have to stay away from third-rail topics like reparations for slavery. This is a wedge issue the size of a Buick and fraught with a cascade of “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” consequences that are guaranteed to alienate vast swaths of voters.

The Rev. Al Sharpton brought reparations to the fore on April 5 at a National Action Network Conference in New York City. He asked the 15-plus Democratic presidential candidates who spoke at the event if they would support HR 40, a 1989 bill reintroduced this year by Texas Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee. The bill would create a “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”


All were for it, but their explanations of what this exactly meant were all over the waterfront, ranging from signing the bill if passed by the House and Senate to responses that could almost be interpreted as “How soon can we cut the checks?” If Sharpton was in the employ of the president’s re-election campaign, he couldn’t have done it a bigger favor or caused greater damage for Democrats.

On April 11, Georgetown University students voted, 2,541 to 1,304, to increase their tuition fees by $27.20 as a form of reparations for the university’s historic ties to slavery. The odd number is “in honor of the 272 people” sold by the Jesuits to help finance the university back in the 1790s. The student resolution intends that proceeds from the fund “will be allocated for charitable purposes directly benefiting the descendants of the GU272 and other persons once enslaved by the Maryland Jesuits — with special consideration given to causes and proposals directly benefiting those descendants still residing in proud and underprivileged communities.” University officials lauded the spirit behind the fee but have not endorsed it.

Slavery was a heinous institution that for almost two-and-one-half centuries reduced blacks to a status lower than livestock. Few farmers treated animals as cruelly as slave owners did their slaves, using whips, leg chains, and iron collars. The decades after emancipation were only marginally better. They were filled with dehumanizing Jim Crow laws, lynchings, red-lining of cities and suburbs, systemic job discrimination, voting rights violations, inferior schools, and sub-par health care.

Some of these sins continue today, as witness the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act, recent black church burnings in the South, and the virulent rise of white supremacist organizations. Slavery is America’s abiding shame, and it can never be erased by averting our gaze, re-writing history books, or toppling statues of Confederate heroes.

We absolutely have to do more for African-Americans than the “Forty Acres and a Mule” offered black farmers after the Civil War as compensation for their forced labor. However, payments to the descendants of slaves would create a snake pit of resentment among whites and present some very practical problems.

Older black residents, especially those in the rural South, sometimes have trouble producing their birth certificates to register to vote. How would they be expected to prove they were the descendants of slaves? Family tradition? That didn’t serve U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren very well when she attempted to verify her family’s long-held claim to Native American ancestry by taking a DNA test.

And what about the many who are of mixed race? Should DNA tests be used to determine the percentage of genes from West Africa from where most slaves originated? Would cash payments be calibrated to reflect this percentage?

Would blacks who are solidly middle class or perhaps members of the coveted 1% super-rich club also receive payments? The complexity of all of this is daunting.

Some critics cite affirmative action programs, quotas at colleges, universities, and in workplaces, and even welfare assistance as modern forms of reparations. I certainly don’t agree and find such assertions insulting. But I also understand why those who trace their ancestry to the post-Civil War immigration waves are wondering why they should be accountable for the still-evident wages of slavery.

Reparations are worth a serious discussion if the end result is not cash payments but a frontal assault on the inferior schools, poor healthcare, and incompetent leadership that plague certain pockets of America, from Baltimore to Biloxi. Financing this as the national deficit reaches historic levels and the clock runs out on Medicare and Social Security solvency appears almost impossible. However, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of the moral universe is long, but it must bend toward justice.