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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman February 22, 2024

Biden promised to support a study on reparations, but has not called for one

When Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination in 2020, he said the nation was issuing "the most compelling call for racial justice since the '60s." 

Months later after winning the presidency, he said, "the African American community stood up again for me. You've always had my back, and I'll have yours."

On the campaign trail, Biden made several promises to address racial injustice. Biden kept his promise to reduce the rate of uninsured African Americans and has taken steps toward his promise to make historically Black colleges and universities more affordable. 

But, on another promise, we found scant evidence of action: Biden promised to support the study of reparations. He did not promise to pay reparations — only to support its study.

Biden could form a commission to study reparations or back a long-standing proposal in Congress to study it. He could give a speech calling for a study on reparations. We found no evidence that he took any such steps.

In June, a reporter asked Biden spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre about reparations.

"The president has been really clear when it — as it relates to reparation, he wants to see a study of reparations. ... and studying the continuing impacts of slavery. He believes that is incredibly important," Jean-Pierre replied.

When the reporter asked what Biden would do after such a study, Jean-Pierre said,: "We've got to let the study move forward."

Democrats have sought a study of reparations for decades

Since 1989, Democrats have introduced bills that call for studying reparations for African Americans. The idea for reparations gained more attention in 2020 after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, reintroduced related legislation in January 2023, but it has not received a vote in the Republican-led House. The bill, H.R. 40, is named for the phrase "40 acres and a mule," which represents the unfulfilled promise of reparations made to enslaved people after emancipation in the 1860s. 

Advocates say reparations would be a way to make amends for injustices and disparities endured by descendants of the millions of people who were enslaved in the centuries before emancipation.

Polls show majority oppose reparations

Niambi Carter, a Howard University associate professor of political science, told us at the end of Biden's first year in office that his promise was easy for the president to ignore because it is a "deeply unpopular issue." 

Although Biden knows Black voters are a core constituency, Carter said, the president also knows white Americans' support for reparations is comparatively anemic. Multiple polls in recent years have shown a majority of all Americans oppose reparations.

William A Darity Jr., a Duke University public policy professor, said Biden's reluctance "might be attributable to a calculation that, on net, it would hurt his campaign prospects."

Some experts who have studied reparations say that Biden's promise to only "study" reparations doesn't go far enough.

"While further study is always desirable, it is not necessary to move ahead with an actual down payment," said Thomas Craemer, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut.

He said Biden could urge Congress to pass an actual down payment rather than instituting a study group. 

"This down payment should be sufficiently large to close the average per-capita Black-White wealth gap resulting from federally legislated slavery and post-slavery race discrimination," Craemer said in an email.

Biden has several months left in office to support a study, but so far he has done nothing. If he takes action before his term ends, we will revisit this promise. For now, though, we rate this Promise Broken.

RELATED: PolitiFact's Biden Promise Tracker

Our Sources, H.Res.414 - Recognizing that the United States has a moral and legal obligation to provide reparations for the enslavement of Africans and its lasting harm on the lives of millions of Black people in the United States, May 17, 2023

White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, June 14, 2023

A. Kirsten Mullen, America Needs a Better Reparations Plan, May 2022

White House, Statement to PolitiFact, Feb. 13, 2024

Email interview, Thomas Craemer, associate professor in the school of public policy at the University of Connecticut, Feb. 15, 2024

Email interview,  William A. Darity Jr., professor of public policy at Duke University, Feb. 13, 2024


Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman December 22, 2021

Biden’s promise to study reparations for Black Americans for slavery stalls

Fueled by racial justice protests in 2020, a bill to study slavery reparations for Black Americans appeared to gain some traction in Congress for the first time in decades. But President Joe Biden took no action to advance his campaign promise to study reparations.

Supporters had hoped Biden would come out in full support of the legislation when it reached a vote by a House panel in April, and/or when he spoke in June at the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Neither happened.

In April, the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee voted 25-17, along party lines, to move forward HR 40, legislation named for "40 acres and a mule," the phrase that has come to represent the unfulfilled promise of reparations given to enslaved people following emancipation. The legislation would have led to a study of reparations, but didn't commit to paying reparations. The vote took place against the backdrop of the trial of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer eventually convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis in 2020.

"America, this is a real and positive opportunity for healing and restoring, in particular, the African American community and the entire Nation," House sponsor U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, tweeted before the vote. 

The legislation never received a full vote in the House, and it stalled in the Senate.

In 2021, both parties sought wins over COVID-19-related legislation or policies, the debt ceiling and infrastructure, said Niambi Carter, an associate professor of political science at Howard University. But when it came to reparations, that one was easy for Biden to cut, because it is a "deeply unpopular issue," Carter said.

While Biden knows that Black voters are one of his core constituencies, Carter said, the president also knows that there would have to be a substantial number of white voters who are also invested in pursuing reparations — and polls show that's not the case. (Multiple polls since 2019 have shown a majority of Americans oppose reparations.)

"Biden is wary of giving Republicans another rallying cry like they had this summer with critical race theory," Carter said, referencing a broad set of ideas about systemic bias and privilege that became a flashpoint in America's state legislatures and played a key role in some pivotal 2021 elections.

HR 40 calls for a commission that would recommend remedies and identify the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery and the "lingering negative effects of the institution of slavery." 

Advocates say reparations would be a way to make amends for injustices and disparities endured by descendants of the millions of people who were enslaved in the centuries before emancipation.

The bill states that as a result of historical and continued discrimination, "African Americans continue to suffer debilitating economic, educational, and health hardships," pointing to the numbers of Black people who are incarcerated and racial disparities in unemployment and wealth.

Days after Biden's speech in June in Tulsa, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki was asked whether Biden, who had not publicly called on Congress to pass HR 40, supported the bill. 

Psaki replied: "Well, he supports a number of components of the bill, including the funding and the proposal for a study, which he feels would be the next important step forward and something that he feels would be absolutely correct in addressing this moment in history — these moments in history." When asked if Biden supports HR 40 as it stands, Psaki said, "I don't have more of an assessment of the legislation. But he, of course, supports a study of reparations and feels that would be the best next step."

The first federal call for reparations came during the waning months of the Civil War. Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered that formerly enslaved families should get plots of 40 acres along with mules. But after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman's order. The phrase "40 acres and a mule" would become a symbol of the nation's unfulfilled promise. 

Over the next century, many activists called for reparations, including Callie House, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. There is historical precedent for reparations, including in Germany for victims of the Holocaust and in the U.S. for Japanese Americans who were interned in World War II.

In 1989, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced a bill to create a commission to study reparations, recommend remedies and consider whether compensation was warranted. After Conyers retired in 2017, Jackson Lee took over the effort

Here's where Biden's promise stands at the end of 2021: The House panel's vote to move forward legislation to study reparations was a historic step, but the full House never took it up for a vote and it stalled in the Senate. We have not seen Biden take steps toward this promise. We will watch for any developments over the rest of his presidency, but for now we rate this promise Stalled.

RELATED: Protests renew call for reparations for African Americans

RELATED: Biden made a lot of promises about race. Can he keep them?

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