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Journal of Black Studies

http://jbs.sagepub.com The Black Reparations Movement: Public Opinion and Congressional Policy Making

Melissa R. Michelson Journal of Black Studies 2002; 32; 574 The online version of this article can be found at: http://jbs.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/32/5/574

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Michelson THE BLACK REPARATIONS MOVEMENT JOURNAL/ OF BLACK STUDIES / MAY 2002

THE BLACK REPARATIONS MOVEMENT Public Opinion and Congressional Policy Making

MELISSA R. MICHELSON

California State University at Fresno

Well into 1999, the idea of paying reparations to African Americans for slavery and segregation was a political third rail even among civil rights activists. But a year later, the idea was endorsed by the NAACP and city councils across the country. A bill to study reparations that had been languishing in Congress for more than a decade gained significant support at the 2000 annual meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus. This article examines the hypothesis that shifts in public attention and support, as measured by media coverage, have caused increasing numbers of Black members of Congress to endorse reparations legislation.

Recently, the idea of paying reparations to descendants of slavery has been gaining public acceptance. Last year, supportive resolutions were passed by at least a dozen city councils, including Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Mainstream civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference regularly raise the issue, and last year the NAACP named reparations one of its top 10 priorities. Last summer, the Democratic Party for the first time adopted a plank endorsing the idea of establishing a federal commission to study the lingering effects of slavery. A high-powered group of lawyers,

AUTHOR'S NOTE: My thanks to Ali and Ismaila Rashid for their encouragement of and help with this project. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2001 annual meeting of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.

JOURNAL OF BLACK STUDIES, Vol. 32 No. 5, May 2002 574-587 © 2002 Sage Publications

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including Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogeltree, Jr.; Alexander J. Pires, Jr., who won a $1 billion discrimination suit on behalf of Black farmers; and Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., have been meeting to plot strategy for a possible class-action lawsuit seeking reparations (Fletcher, 2000). Many influential Black leaders, such as Coretta Scott King, are talking seriously about reparations for African Americans (Bunch, 1993). The issue even made a recent appearance on the popular television drama The West Wing when the nomination of an assistant attorney general was jeopardized by his support for reparations. At the national level, however, the government has thus far resisted investigating the Black reparations issue. Since 1989, Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-Michigan) has introduced to each session of Congress legislation to set up a commission to examine the effect of slavery. Each session, the bill dies in committee. Until recently, Conyers had trouble getting support even from other Black representatives; at the 2000 annual convention of the Congressional Black Caucus, however, a number of members pledged their support for the bill (Merida, 1999; Muwakkil, 2000). This article examines the hypothesis that increased public attention to and support for Black reparations is mirrored in congressional activity--that as public opinion becomes more accepting of the idea, the number of cosponsors increases. Given the lack of good public opinion data on the issue, this is examined using local and national media coverage, including television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. As media coverage of Black reparations varies, so does the number of cosponsors for Conyers's bill.

BACKGROUND

In 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Field Order No. 15 containing the famous promise of 40 acres and a mule. Congress passed a bill in 1866 to provide former slaves with small payments and a pension, but it was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson. The issue has reappeared periodically since then. Between 1890 and 1903, nine identical bills to provide pensions to

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ex-slaves were introduced to Congress, but despite support from some prominent members of Congress, the measures never became law (Hill, 1996). During the 1960s civil rights movement, Black power advocates such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X demanded land and cash payments, but at the time they were considered the fringe of the Black political movement (Bunch, 1993). In his 1963 book, Why We Can't Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (as cited in Feagin, 2000) called for compensation for slavery, segregation, and discrimination, but the issue was hardly a center point of the movement. After that, the issue surfaced briefly in 1972 when the National Black Political Convention called for Black reparations at its annual meeting (Bittker, 1973). In 1987, Congress voted to award reparations to Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps during World War II. The legislation was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, and some $200 million is being distributed. Supporters of Black reparations saw the settlement as a sign that reparations for slavery would not be far behind and redoubled their efforts. In 1994, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in American (N'COBRA) held a meeting in Detroit that was attended by such mainstream Black leaders as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks (Parker, 2000). Also in 1994, the Nation of Islam petitioned the United Nations to pressure the United States to provide reparations to Black Americans under the umbrella of international law (Feagin, 2000). Supporters of Black reparations believe that current disparities in income and wealth between Blacks and Whites in the United States are legacies of slavery and that without compensation for slavery, it is unreasonable to expect most Blacks to achieve economic success. Randall Robinson (2000), author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, summed up his argument in a recent editorial in The Nation: "When the black living suffer real and current consequences as a result of wrongs committed by a younger America, then contemporary America must shoulder responsibility for those wrongs until such wrongs have been adequately righted" (p. 5).

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To those who argue that compensation cannot be made to slaves because there are no living former slaves, reparations supporters counter that although slavery officially ended in 1865, there is substantial evidence that the practice continued illegally well into the 20th century (Walters, 2000) and that Blacks should be compensated for injuries caused by the system of legally imposed segregation, which was found unconstitutional in 1954. "As slavery receeded into the background, it was succeeded by a caste system embodying white supremacy . . . the life of blacks in America will bear for decades the scars of a century of discrimination" (Bittker, 1973, pp. 17-19). In addition to interned Japanese Americans, the United States has also paid reparations, including land and benefits, to American Indians and to descendants of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments (Jonsson, 2001). In 1994, the Florida legislature awarded $150,000 each to nine survivors of the 1923 attack on Blacks in Rosewood, Florida, and $500,000 to heirs of Rosewood property and created a $100,000 scholarship fund. Last year, a special commission in Oklahoma recommended that reparations be paid for one of the nation's deadliest racial clashes: a little-known 1921 rampage by a White Tulsa mob that killed as many as 300 people, most of them Black (DuBose, 2001). Reparations have also been made by industry: Several corporations have apologized in the past year for their role in promoting slavery before the Civil War, including insurance firm Aetna Inc., which in the 1850s sold insurance policies that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when their slaves died (Jonsson, 2001). During the past summer, the Hartford Courant printed a front-page apology for the profits it made from running ads for the sale of slaves and the capture of runaways. On January 1, 2001, a new California law took effect that requires insurance companies to disclose any slave insurance policies they may have issued. The state has also mandated that University of California officials assemble a team of scholars to research the history of slavery and report how current California businesses benefited (Fletcher, 2000; Moore, 2000).

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PUBLIC OPINION

The Black reparations issue has not been the subject of much survey research; there have been only four recent polls, only one of which was scientifically administered and national in scope. The one "good" poll was conducted by ABC News on June 18, 1997. It asked, "Do you think the federal government should or should not pay money to Black Americans whose ancestors were slaves as compensation for that slavery?" Of 703 respondents (with an oversample of Blacks), 19% supported reparations, 77% did not, and 4% had no opinion. Among Whites, 10% supported reparations and 88% did not. Among Blacks, 65% supported reparations and 28% did not. An unscientific Time magazine online survey in February of 2000 found that only a quarter of respondents (25.5%) supported Black reparations, whereas 73.4% did not. In mid-June, these results were published in the Houston Chronicle and in USA TODAY (Lash, 2000; Richardson, 2000). In April of 2000, a Chicago-area NBC affiliate television station (WMAQ) reported that 14% of respondents to an NBC poll supported reparations to African Americans. (This seems to have been a local survey conducted as the issue was discussed by the Chicago City Council.) A poll conducted by the University of Chicago and Harvard University in October of 2000 found that 53% of surveyed Blacks thought that the government should pay reparations. The results were published in December in The Los Angeles Times (Simon, 2000) and The Economist ("The Children of Slavery," 2000). Given that there is insufficient public opinion data available to track public support for Black reparations over time, this study uses media coverage as a proxy for public interest, assuming a positive correlation between public interest and the amount of media coverage of the issue. For the purposes of this study, it is not important whether the media is leading public support or public support is encouraging media coverage. There is considerable existing evidence of a media agenda-setting role--that extensive media attention to an issue increases its perceived national importance (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Iyengar, Kinder, Peters, & Krosnick,

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1984; Krosnick & Brannon, 1993; Krosnick & Kinder, 1990; McCombs, 1981; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Miller & Krosnick, 2000). In fact, a number of studies (e.g., Kellstedt, 2000; Krosnick & Kinder, 1990) use media coverage as a proxy for the effects of events on public opinion. If media coverage is following public support, then the measures of media coverage used in this study are an appropriate proxy for public opinion. If media coverage drives public support, then again, the measures used in this study will accurately estimate public interest. Media reports from the past 20 years including major newspapers, radio and television transcripts, and major magazines and journals were searched using Lexis-Nexis®. The initial results provided 839 citations; irrelevant and repeated citations were eliminated to create final lists of citations. Letters to the editor that appeared in the same publication on the same day were considered one citation. Radio and television citations cover only the time period 1994 to 2000; newspaper and magazine/journal citations cover the period 1989 to 2000. National news broadcasts for 1989 to 2000 were also searched using the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive, but no additional citations were found. Overall, there were 40 national television broadcasts, 4 national radio broadcasts, 13 national newspaper citations, 17 magazine citations, 153 local newspaper citations, 211 local television broadcasts, and 105 local radio citations. Finally, Black media was searched using Ethnic NewsWatch. Although Ethnic NewsWatch claims to have materials dating back to 1990, results were found to only 1992. The results, graphed by year, are displayed in Figures 1 through 3. As shown in the figures, there is a definite increase in media coverage over time in the national media (Figure 1), local media (Figure 2), and Black media (Figure 3). In addition, there is a spike in coverage in 1994 and a drop in coverage in the period 1995 to 1996 that corresponds to the various numbers of cosponsors for the Conyers bill. This correspondence is further explored in the Discussion section. Some highlights of the national media coverage should be noted. In 2000, there were 22 national television broadcasts, including six

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25

20

15

10

television radio

5

Count

newspapers magazines 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000

0

Year

Figure 1: National Media Coverage

160 140 120 100 80 60 40 television radio newspapers 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000

Count

20 0

Year

Figure 2: Local Media Coverage

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200

100

Count

0 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000

Year

Figure 3: Black Media Coverage

network news shows (five on CBS and the Newshour With Jim Lehrer). Of cable broadcasts, three were on CNN, five were on CSPAN, and one was on Fox News Cable. There were also three broadcasts (all identical) about the issue on Nickelodeon, two shows on Lifetime, and one on BET. In 1999, there was one broadcast on Fox News Cable and two on BET. In 1997, there were five network news broadcasts, including Nightline, the Today show, and three Fox news broadcasts. There were also six cable broadcasts, including three on CNN, one on C-SPAN, one on MSNBC, and one on Nickelodeon. In 1994, there were two national network broadcasts, including one on the CBS Evening News and two cable broadcasts on CNN's Prime News. National radio broadcasts included two segments on National Public Radio (NPR) in 2000, including one on "Talk of the Nation" and one on "Morning Edition." In 1999, Public Radio International discussed the issue on a segment on "Marketplace." In 1997, NPR aired a segment on "All Things Considered."

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National newspaper coverage was defined as citations in The New York Times or USA TODAY. In 2000, there were six citations in The New York Times, including two news articles, one op-ed piece, and three letters to the editor, and two citations in USA TODAY, including one op-ed piece and one letter to the editor. In 1999, there was one letter to the editor in The New York Times. In 1997, there was one letter to the editor in the Times. In 1994, there were three national newspaper articles published, including one in the Times and two in USA TODAY. In 1991, there was one letter to the editor in the Times. In 1989, there was an op-ed piece in USA TODAY. Magazine citations were generally in publications aimed at Black readers, including Jet, Essence, and Ebony. In 2000, there were 10 national magazine articles, including an article in The Economist, three in Jet, one article and two letters to the editor in Ebony, an article in The Weekly Standard, and op-ed pieces in The American Spectator and The American Prospect. In 1998, there were articles in Jet and U.S. News & World Report. In 1997, there were articles in Ebony and Essence. In 1995, there was an article in Essence. In 1994, there was an article in The Economist. In 1989, there was an article in Newsweek. Some further comments contextualize the media coverage. Periodically, the media publicizes attempts by African Americans to illegally claim "black tax" credits on their federal income tax forms. This increases media coverage, but it is negative coverage. Most of these stories have followed in the wake of a 1993 article in Essence magazine that urged readers to claim the credit (Sherrod, 1993). Increased coverage in 1994 is related to the N'COBRA conference in Detroit and the Nation of Islam petition to the United Nations. Increased coverage in 1997 corresponds with the release of the movie Rosewood and is also linked to the national debate about whether Congress or President Bill Clinton would apologize for slavery. Any such apology would have been significant in the eyes of supporters of slavery reparations as the decision to provide reparations to interned Japanese Americans was accompanied by apologies from Congress and President Reagan.

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LEGISLATIVE HISTORY

Conyers has introduced his reparations bill in every session of Congress since the 101st (1989-1990). The bill, Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act, has never emerged from committee. The official summary of the bill (Congressional Record, 2001) reads:

A bill to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes. (p. H57)

In the 101st Congress (1989-1990), the bill experienced its greatest success. Conyers introduced the bill (HR3745) on November 20, 1989. Between February 22, 1990, and July 18, 1990, the bill gathered 24 cosponsors. The Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights held a mark-up session on October 24, 1990, and then forwarded the bill to the full Judiciary Committee but without recommendation. No further action was taken. In the 102nd Congress (1991-1992), Conyers introduced his bill (HR1684) on April 10, 1991. It was again sent to the Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, but no action was taken. This time the bill had 25 cosponsors. In the 103rd Congress (1993-1994), Conyers introduced his bill on January 5, 1993, with the symbolic bill number HR40, a reference to the 40 acres and a mule promise. Again the bill was recommended to the Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, and again no action was taken. This time the number of cosponsors had grown to 28. In the 104th Congress (1995-1996), Conyers introduced his bill (HR891) on February 10, 1995. This time, the bill was sent to the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution; no further action was taken. This session, the bill found only 12 cosponsors.

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In the 105th Congress (1997-1998), Conyers introduced his bill (again HR40) on January 7, 1997. Again the bill was sent to the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, and again no action was taken. However, Congressional support was up; the bill found 32 cosponsors. In the 106th Congress (1999-2000), Conyers again introduced his bill as HR40, and again it was referred to the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, never to be seen again. Congressional support this session increased to 48 cosponsors. During the summer of 2000, when 28 of 38 members of the Congressional Black Caucus were signed on as sponsors of the bill, backers organized an appeal to Representative Henry J. Hyde (RIllinois), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to call a hearing and allow a vote, but no action was taken (Turner, 2000).

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

There is clear evidence that the amount of media coverage of the reparations issue is related to the degree of support in Congress for Conyers's bill. As the amount of media coverage increased from the 101st session (1989-1990) to the 103rd session (1993-1994), the number of cosponsors increased from 24 to 28. However, coverage dropped during the 104th session (1995-1996), and the number of cosponsors fell to 12. During the 105th (1997-1998) and 106th sessions (1999-2000), coverage increased to ever higher levels, and the number of cosponsors increased to a level far higher than that of the early 1990s. The evidence is even stronger when media is examined by type: During the 104th session, when the number of cosponsors dropped to only 12, the total number of citations does not drop very low due to an increase in local television stories, but there was not a single national television, radio, or newspaper item about reparations. That the number of cosponsors has not simply increased steadily over time but dips during the 104th session indicates that Congress is attentive to the public mood on the reparations issue. The link between media coverage and congressional action is further supported by a test of Pearson correlation coefficients, as

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TABLE 1

Pearson Correlation Coefficients

Number of Cosponsors National television National radio National newspapers Magazines Local television Local radio Local newspapers Black media .915 .886 .887 .869 .807 .835 .850 .840 Significance .011 .019 .018 .024 .052 .039 .032 .075

shown in Table 1. During sessions with heavier media coverage there are more cosponsors; during sessions of sparser media coverage there are fewer cosponsors. Every form of media coverage correlates with the number of cosponsors at better than the .8 level, signifying a very strong level of correlation. Unfortunately, as noted earlier, Lexis-Nexis® does not have television and radio citations available for the entire time period under investigation. Regression analysis was not performed on the data for several reasons. First, there is an extremely small number of cases (N = 6 sessions), which would make any regression estimates unreliable. Second, the independent variables, the measures of media coverage of various forms, are all highly correlated, at better than .8, which would introduce problems of multicollinearity to any regression model. Still, although this type of more sophisticated data analysis is not possible, it is very clear from the data that there is a strong association over time between media coverage and the number of cosponsors of Conyers's reparations bill. Media coverage of the reparations issue has remained high during 2001, which suggests that the number of cosponsors for Conyers's bill will continue to increase. At the start of the 107th Congress (2001-2002), on January 3, 2001, Conyers once again introduced his bill (HR40). Already it has nine cosponsors. Before the 2000 elections, there was talk of how the measure would flourish in a Judiciary Committee chaired by Conyers. However, as

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Republicans have retained control of the chamber, the legislation is unlikely to become law. Still, the evidence presented in this article demonstrates that as the public becomes increasingly aware of the reparations issue and as media coverage continues to increase, congressional support will also continue to increase, which may lead to eventual Congressional action. Conyers waited 15 years for his proposal to make Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday; perhaps his reparations proposal will enjoy a similar fate.

REFERENCES

Bittker, B. I. (1973). The case for Black reparations. New York: Random House. Bunch, M. (1993, July 3). Slavery-reparations drive finds support in San Diego. San Diego Union-Tribune, p. A1. The children of slavery. (2000). The Economist, 357(8202), p. 31. Congressional Record. (2001). 107th Cong., 1st sess. DuBose, J. (2001, January 15). Conference to address reparations for slavery. Atlanta Journal and Constitution, p. 4A. Feagin, J. R. (2000). Racist America: Roots, current realities, and future reparations. New York: Routledge. Fletcher, M. A. (2000, December 26). Putting a price on slavery's legacy; call for reparations builds as Blacks tally history's toll. The Washington Post, p. A1. Hill, W. B., Jr. (1996). The ex-slave pension movement: Some historical and genealogical notes. Negro History Bulletin, 59(4), 7-11. Iyengar, S., & Kinder, D. R. (1987). News that matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Iyengar, S., Kinder, D. R., Peters, M. D., & Krosnick, J. A. (1984). The evening news and presidential evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 778-787. Jonsson, P. (2001, January 12). Movement to pay slavery reparations gains. Christian Science Monitor, USA section, p. 2. Kellstedt, P. M. (2000). Media framing and the dynamics of racial policy preferences. American Journal of Political Science, 44, 245-260. Krosnick, J. A., & Brannon, L. (1993). The impact of the Gulf War on the ingredients of presidential evaluations: Multidimensional effects of political involvement. American Political Science Review, 87, 963-975. Krosnick, J. A., & Kinder, D. R. (1990). Altering the foundations of support for the president through priming. American Political Science Review, 84, 497-512. Lash, S. (2000, June 14). Group seeks reparation for slavery. Houston Chronicle, p. A21. McCombs, M. E. (1981). The agenda-setting approach. In D. D. Nimmo & K. R. Sanders (Eds.), Handbook of political communication (pp. 121-140). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of the mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-187.

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Merida, K. (1999, November 23). Did freedom alone pay a nation's debt? Rep. John Conyers Jr. has a question. He's willing to wait a long time for the right answer. The Washington Post, p. C1. Miller, J. M., & Krosnick, J. A. (2000). News media impact on the ingredients of presidential evaluations: Politically knowledgeable citizens are guided by a trusted source. American Journal of Political Science, 44, 301-315. Moore, S. (2000, December 11). Law on "slave insurance" to debut soon. The Los Angeles Times, p. B1. Muwakkil, S. (2000, October 30). Hot off the fringes: Tide may have finally changed on reparations. Chicago Tribune, p. 11. Parker, J. (2000). Reparations for slavery? Don't perpetuate division. World and I, 15(4), 72, 74-76. Richardson, G. D. (2000, June 16). At least consider idea of reparations. USA TODAY, p. 29A. Robinson, R. M. (2000). America's debt to Blacks. The Nation, 270(10), 5. Sherrod, L. G. (1993). Forty acres and a mule. Essence, 23(12), 124. Simon, S. (2000, December 11). The calculus of injustice. The Los Angeles Times, p. E1. Turner, D. (2000, June 12). U.S. should study issuance of apology for slavery. Buffalo News, p. 2B. Walters, R. (2000). Reparations for slavery? Let's resolve the inequity. World and I, 15(4), 73, 77-79.

Melissa R. Michelson is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Fresno. She received her Ph.D. in political science from Yale University in 1994. Her research examines links between political attitudes and behaviors, particularly among Latinos. She has published articles in Aztlán, Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, Journal of Urban Affairs, Social Science Quarterly, International Studies Notes, and Political Communication. She has also taught at Lawrence University and the University of Illinois, Chicago.

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