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Is the case for reparations still open?

The concept of reparations for slavery has long been a controversial one, but a new poll suggests that a younger generation could be warming up to the idea.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) speaks to a reporter at the end of a news conference April 22, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Rep. Conyers held the news conference to discuss the \"End Racial Profiling Act.\" (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)
U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) speaks to a reporter at the end of a news conference April 22, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Rep. Conyers held the news conference to discuss the \"End Racial Profiling Act.\" 

The concept of reparations for slavery in the United States has long been a controversial one, but a new poll suggests that a younger generation of Americans may be warming up to the idea.

According to an exclusive Point Taken-Marist poll released on Wednesday in conjunction with a new PBS series entitled "Point Taken," while 68 percent of the public opposes some form of financial compensation to the African-American descendants of slaves, millennials appear to be more open to it, with 40 percent saying there should be reparations and another 11 percent saying they were unsure. Meanwhile, 49 percent of millennial respondents said they opposed reparations. The fact that millennials are significantly more diverse than their elders (2010 Census data showed that 44.2 percent identify as part of a minority race or ethnic group) may have been a contributing factor in the results.

Still, this poll could also be viewed as the outcome of reparations supporters becoming increasingly vocal. Acclaimed author and columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates' widely shared 2014 column "The Case for Reparations" reignited the debate and later led to a minor 2016 campaign kerfuffle when the writer took radical Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders to task for dismissing the idea as "divisive" (Coates later supported his candidacy anyway.) This January, a panel of United Nations experts recommended in a report that U.S. lawmakers in Washington, D.C., take up the cause of reparations.

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"Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African-Americans today," they said in their preliminary report. "The persistent gap in almost all the human development indicators, such as life expectancy, income and wealth, level of education, and even food security … reflects the level of structural discrimination that creates de facto barriers for people of African descent to fully exercise their human rights."

Meanwhile, veteran Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) has been introducing a resolution annually in the House for more than 25 years calling for a robust discussion around the concept of reparations. Entitled H.R. 40, in a nod to Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman's order (later rescinded by lawmakers) to grant 40 acres and a mule to freed slaves in 1865, the bill would enact a commission to study the negative socioeconomic impact of slavery on the black community and propose methods of redress.

"Since I first introduced H.R. 40 in 1989, we have made substantial progress in elevating this issue in the national consciousness. As recent poll numbers indicate, through legislation, state and local resolutions, and litigation, we are moving closer to a full dialogue on the role of slavery in building this country," Rep. Conyers told MSNBC in a statement on Thursday. "For me, it’s not surprising that young people are more open minded on the reparations issue, since they have been the beneficiaries of a vastly more inclusive system of education on issues of civil rights and people of color.  With the passage of time, I hope that this openness will foster a more robust dialogue on the continuing impact of race, creating space for solutions that may finally close the door to historical issues rooted in intolerance."

However, the issue of reparations has largely been a non-starter in mainstream political circles. President Barack Obama has not embraced the idea as a candidate or since he has been in office, arguing that "nothing, including reparations, can fully compensate" for the sins of slavery. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has not addressed reparations directly but when confronted on the topic, she has similarly pivoted to making the case for more financial investment in impoverished communities.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has pledged to "bring back jobs" to the black community and alleged that Obama has "done nothing" for African-Americans, has not taken an official position on the issue. MSNBC reached out to his campaign for comment on reparations but has not heard back at this time.

Opponents of reparations have cited the enormous challenge of implementation (according to one researcher from the University of Connecticut, it could cost as much as $14 trillion), questioned the fairness and legality of the concept, and argued that it actually would deepen racial tensions, which recent polls suggest are on the rise.

There have been official formal apologies from governments involved in the slave trade, including the U.S., and in recent years the renaming of landmarks that previously sported racially insensitive monikers and the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouses and retail stores could all be pointed to as evidence of the country acknowledging the disgrace of its slavery past.

But clearly, at least as far a significant portion of the African-American population is concerned, reparations are still worth fighting for. The Points Taken-Marist poll found that 58 percent of blacks back compensation for slavery, the only group to show a majority level of support for the idea. By comparison, 81 percent of whites are opposed to reparations, but that is a drop from the 90 percent opposition that was widely reported over a decade ago.

"The issue of reparations still resonates with African-Americans because they know that slavery is not some relic belonging in a museum or some dusty history book.  Black people are hurting in every aspect of their lives and struggling against white supremacy and institutional racism," freelance writer and commentator David A. Love told MSNBC on Thursday. "From double the unemployment of whites and wealth inequality, to glaring health disparities and the ongoing effects of trauma, all of the challenges facing African-American are linked to the badge of slavery. But this is happening today in 2016, not just in 1816 or 1916."

However, advocacy for some sort of economic assistance to ancestors of slaves is nothing new. 

"Ta-Nehisi Coates did not invent reparations. This is an argument that goes back almost the founding of the country," Sam Fulwood, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress told MSNBC on Thursday. "Just about every generation of black Americans have renegotiated their contract with what it means to be black in America ... that conversation has always included reparations." 

Yet, with perhaps the exception of historic civil rights legislation passed during the mid-20th century, multiple efforts to advocate for a financial settlement for the institution of slavery since its conclusion have come and gone with no success. Fulwood believes part of the problem is that many of the concept's supporters and detractors don't really have a practical sense of what reparations are and that they are "not really rooted in any kind of reality."

"It's easy to say you're in favor [of reparations] until you talk about how you're going to do it." he said.  "I don’t know what would be acceptable as a reparation for the legacy of slavery. Even if it wasn’t money, what could anybody who is living today do to atone for the institution legacy of slavery that still affects people?"

Still, the apparent flexibility on this issue among millennials — which hasn't been reflected in other recent polls — might be a heartening piece of news for reparations advocates, considering the fact that evolving attitudes in that population on issues like drug policy and gay rights will likely sustain progress in those arenas for decades to come.

"Millennials are likely more open to the concept of reparations because young people are being forced to confront the issues of racial injustice, discrimination and inequities in America," Love said. "This is the generation that brought you the Black Lives Matter Movement. These are the people who are faced with mounting college debt, particularly black young people who — as a result of centuries of racist policies and outright theft — have not been able to amass the wealth of their white counterparts."

Despite his cynicism about efficacy of pro-reparation efforts, Fulwood says he would never discourage young people from taking up the cause.

"There are not going to be reparations, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't try. Life is in the effort, not just the accomplishment," he said.

Fulwood added that he would encourage millennials to "push, push, push, but don't be deceived ... don't get disillusioned if things don't change."