U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) (C) speaks on health care as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (2nd L) listens during an event September 13, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
When Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was asked whether he endorsed reparations for the descendants of slaves in the U.S. during a CNN town hall earlier this week, he responded with another question: “What does that mean?”
The Democratic presidential hopeful wasn’t soliciting moderator Wolf Blitzer for a quick dictionary break—although the Associated Press notes that the Democratic candidates have been trying to “embrace a new meaning” of the word.
“I’m not sure anyone’s very clear,” Sanders, who didn’t support reparations during his unsuccessful 2016 presidential bid, continued.
While several other 2020 Democratic hopefuls, including Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have recently voiced support slavery reparations, what form those reparations would take is unclear.
Should reparations involve the literal payment of damages to the families of slaves? Or should those reparations be made, not through direct monetary compensation, but through policies that benefit black Americans to close opportunity gaps?
It depends on who you ask.
“‘Race-conscious policies’ are not a substitute for reparations, because they treat a symptom without acknowledging the cause,” Democratic hopeful Marianne Williamson—lesser known in the political realm, although well-known as a best-selling author and as a spiritual adviser to Oprah—tells Fortune. “As a consequence they don’t have the kind of psychological or emotional force that fundamentally impacts a culture. In fact, they can actually increase the problem if Americans don’t have a deep understanding of why the policies are appropriate.”
Thus far, Williamson is the only official 2020 candidate to openly support giving direct monetary compensation to the descendants of slaves. Naming reparations a key issue on her campaign website, she suggests dispersing $200 billion to $500 billion to the ancestors of slaves over the course of 20 years.
“It’s not enough to just say there’s an economic gap between black and white America and we need to treat it; we have to acknowledge why there is a gap,” Williamson says. Although she acknowledged that progress has been made in years since the Civil War, in spite of recent setbacks in voter suppression, she says, “What was never done, and what remains to be done, is economic restitution.”
Although fellow candidate Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Obama administration official, hasn’t gone so far as to state he would definitively endorse monetary reparations, he has said that they should be considered a viable option and promised to create a task force that would analyze how reparations could be made.
“It is interesting to me that, under our Constitution and otherwise, that we compensate people if we take their property,” Castro told Hardball on Wednesday. “Shouldn’t we compensate people if they were property, sanctioned by the state?”
The American government has previously paid reparations to descendants of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, as well as to victims of state-mandated sterilizations and of the Public Health Service’s 1932 Tuskegee experiment that purposely infected, and failed to treat, black men with syphilis.
Despite these precedents, Hardball reported that 68% of Americans are opposed to reparations for the descendants of slaves. In fact, reparations have been outright dismissed by otherwise progressive politicians—President Barack Obama didn’t endorse them—or have been “redefined” to mean policies that lower the opportunity gap.
Although Senator Harris and Senator Warren told the New York Times that they “support” slavery reparations, they declined to give specific details about what they meant.
After giving her statement of support to the Times, Harris told the Grio that she would address reparations in economic policies including tax breaks for low- to middle-class Americans, which includes black families who had been negatively impacted by slavery.
But when reporter Natasha Alfred directly asked if Harris had a “particular policy for African-Americans that [she] would explore”—rather than policies that would “by default affect black families”—the California Democrat said that she didn’t.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m going to do something that’s only going to benefit black people. No,” Harris said. “Because whatever benefits that black family will benefit that community and society as a whole and the country.”