On July 14th, the City Council of Asheville, North Carolina, a southern city that is 83% white, voted unanimously to apologize for the city’s past complicity in slavery. More significantly, the Asheville’s lawmakers created a Community Reparations Commission, tasked with finding ways to aid Black-owned businesses, and to help increase Black home ownership. (The mandate did not include, though it did not rule out, payments to individuals.) 

Asheville isn’t the first American city to apologize for slavery and enact new policies to repair some of the damage it has done to Black families. For example, in November 2019, Evanston, Illinois, decided to levy a tax on marijuana to expand housing and employment opportunities for the city’s African American residents. Currently, Providence, Rhode Island and Richmond, Virginia are considering similar measures. 

Do these local initiatives matter?

We think they do.  Despite their obvious limitations – like the distinguished Duke economist William Darity, we believe that federal measures are what’s ultimately needed – we also believe the actions taken by town governments, especially in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, can help change the balance of power in America’s approach to racial injustices and inequality.   

We have long argued that since the mid-1970s, American racial politics has been structured as an opposition between two rival racial policy alliances, each in control of some governing institutions: on the one side, a conservative alliance championing color-blind policies, which bar special efforts to aid racial minorities, set against a liberal alliance urging race-conscious measures, such as affirmative action in education and employment and school and housing integration. These alliances help drive the nation’s deeply polarized Republican versus Democrat partisan divide.

We have recently contended that the movement headed by Donald Trump is changing the central message of American racial conservatives, from a call for color-blindness to white protectionism, which portrays whites as the greatest victims of discrimination in modern America. Even as the Covid-19 crisis and economic recession have victimized tens of millions of Americans whom Trump promised to protect, he has doubled down on this message, tweeting photos of blacks attacking whites, and sending federal forces in to crush peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors he deems “terrorists.”

As he promotes white protectionism, however, Trump has unwittingly broadened support for an equally significant shift in the focus of those favoring racial justice reforms. Instead of affirmative action to promote integration within existing American institutions, activists now increasingly urge “reparations” to combat “systemic racism.” 

While many of the objectives and proposed policies remain the same, both the rhetoric and some of the recommendations are significantly more radical—and they are gaining momentum. 

The new emphasis on reparations has been sparked in part journalists willing to take a fresh look at America’s racial problems. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a widely-read piece in the Atlantic in 2014, made “The Case for Reparations.” A similar case, about “What Is Owed,” was made in June in the New York Times Magazine by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The 2016 platform of the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition that includes the Black Lives Matter network and many other groups, made reparations a central demand. 

Meanwhile, in 2019, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, introduced a bill to establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans.

The proposed commission – which the Movement for Black Livesand many congressional Democrats endorse – would identify (1) the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, (2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and (3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African-Americans and society.

Most recent proponents of reparations, such as the lawmakers in Asheville and Evanston, do not primarily advocate for payments to individuals who can show they have been personally harmed by the legacies of enslavement and Jim Crow segregation.  Conservatives have long noted that if we apply standards from tort law, these claims can be hard to make; and few urge efforts to do so.  

Instead, the new focus on “systemic racism” means that “reparations” now usually means government provision for communities of color of the many kinds of resources, opportunities, and protections long provided almost exclusively to white Americans. 

This new agenda is more ambitious and more militant in both its tactics and its goals than the stances of most of those who comprised the preceding race-conscious liberal policy alliance. But many who previously supported affirmative action now embrace reparations with a similar passion.

Can this new policy alliance succeed? Though we have never doubted the justice of the policies that are now on the reparations agenda, we have generally taken the view that a stress on pragmatic problem-solving, rather than a rhetoric of recriminations, was likely to be more politically effective. At a time when the nation’s already profound political and racial polarizations are being further inflamed by a desperate and vicious demagogue, there is reason to worry that pitting “white protectionism” versus “racial reparations” might prove a formula for civil war.

Yet there is also reason to believe that the shift from “affirmative action” to “racial reparations” has broad appeal, especially in the wake of the shocking killing of George Floyd and so many other victims of police brutality. 

The Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020 have been in aggregate the largest in U.S. history, and their participants include many from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Polls indicate that nearly two-thirds of Americans support the protests, and a majority of whites accept that African Americans experience systemic discrimination that must be addressed.  

Acknowledging the urgent need to combat systemic racism, Joe Biden promises to build racial equity initiatives into all his proposals–for the economy, for health care, for the environment, for education, and more.  He has endorsed the 2019 House proposal to create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals.

If Biden wins, and if Democrats also gain control of both chambers of Congress, reparations will almost certainly be on the national agenda.  

This will constitute a remarkable elevation for a policy many doubted could ever get traction. State, local, and private initiatives called “reparations” will likely also continue to grow.  

These policies will be bitterly opposed by the white protectionist alliance. It will portray reparations as injustices inflicted on whites in need of the kind of “protection” that Donald Trump has promised, and that his heirs will argue for still more vociferously.  

But there is a very real chance that for the first time since the 1960s, the modern conservative racial policy alliance, now riding under a banner of “white protectionism,” will be in the minority throughout much of the land, and that today’s egalitarian racial policy alliance, now championing “racial reparations,” will usher in a new and more progressive era in American racial politics.

Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Desmond King is the Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford.