I’m running for Congress in Indiana, and I’ve been warned to stay away from “radical” issues. This shouldn’t be one.
Editor’s note: Dan Canon is a candidate for the Democratic nomination in Indiana’s ninth congressional district.
In 2016, two years after Ta-Nehisi Coates’ eye-opening article in the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” Bernie Sanders was asked if he would support paying reparations to the descendants of American slaves. Sanders had written and spoken a lot about issues of racial inequality, but still his answer was no. “Its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil,” he said. The real problem, Sanders insisted, was the rigged economy.
That seemed true enough, so the conversation ended. There was no serious national dialogue on the topic in the 2016 election cycle because no serious politician would touch it. If the left-most Democratic presidential candidate in recent memory wouldn’t make reparations a part of his platform in 2016, why should congressional candidates in 2018? Wouldn’t that brand you as a radical?
Last year, when I began my run for Congress in Indiana’s ninth district, I was told what many middle America candidates are told: You need to run a “safe” campaign. What this basically means, in practice, is that if someone asks you about guns or abortion, you pivot to economic issues. “I get that you’re concerned about being drone-bombed for owning an AR-15, but wouldn’t you rather talk about how to protect your 401k?” I’m still getting that advice today. So a couple of weeks ago, when I put a blurb on my campaign website in support of a commission on reparations, some called it a suicide run.
The advice to run a milquetoast, whitewashed campaign comes mainly from D.C. types who fetishize flyover states, but also tend to underestimate the people who live in them. People here in Indiana value honesty and forthrightness, from both the right and the left. We are also predisposed to thinking of politicians as liars. Economic weasel-words might work for some candidates in some places, especially if that candidate is concerned with little other than getting elected in a wave year. But as a long-term strategy, it’s not good to hide from tough topics around here. We won’t trust you.
More importantly, in light of the monstrosity that is the Trump administration, many of us recognize a different set of priorities. With the greed of those in power finally on full display, unashamed of itself or its aims, my generation now has an opportunity to do what the baby boomers would not: make a better world. Not just for ourselves and our own families, but for everyone. We need more than a banner midterm year. We need real, lasting change.
The precursor to this real change is real discourse. We cannot play defense and expect to win any victories for the people who need them most. We must have the courage to take the moral high ground, especially where it can easily be seized. Reparations is one of those areas.
Our history of slavery, segregation, redlining, selective policing and mass incarceration has left an ever-widening racial wealth gap. Closing this gap should be a critical part of a mission to improve America. We can’t get it done by pivoting to the economy whenever race comes up. Take, for example, the recent study from Brandeis University determining that external factors do nothing to correct the racial wealth gap. Education, full-time work, a stable family life — none of these things narrow the chasm between black and white.
Another study shows that black people who are born into wealth fare worse than white kids born into poor families. White wealth is now, on average, at least 10 times that of black wealth. For the 12 percent or so of our population whose ancestors were brought here to be property, raising wages and offering free college, without doing more to rectify these enormous imbalances, isn’t likely to “unrig” the economy. Even the most aggressive affirmative action program — which would almost certainly be unconstitutional in the eyes of this Supreme Court — would not do the job.
The data suggest that different measures might need to be taken if we are to seriously address economic justice between the races. These measures may, at first, appear radical. But here’s the thing: reparations are not at all a radical proposition. Former Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., pushed a reparations commission bill for nearly 30 years before retiring in 2017, and at one time had the support of around 70 other members of Congress. Before that, the Reagan administration paid reparations to Japanese families who had lost everything they owned when they were sent to internment camps during World War II. In fact, many ethnically motivated atrocities in the recent history of the industrialized world have resulted in compensation paid by the wrongdoers. Ultimately, assessing the feasibility of reparations is the right thing to do. We shouldn’t hide from it. We should talk about it. We should normalize it.
When I proposed marijuana legalization at the beginning of this campaign, I lost support among many old-guard Democrats who insisted that I wasn’t a “serious candidate.” Now, nearly a year later, candidates all over the Midwest are openly calling for the removal of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. A few months ago, I was the first candidate to openly advocate the abolition of ICE. Now there are at least 13 congressional candidates who support the idea. A guaranteed jobs program, which was considered “too left for Sanders” as recently as last year, is now being supported by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and other mainstream Democrats who would not have touched it in elections past. This should be ample proof that we can make a better world just by being brave enough to talk about a few good ideas.
A reparations commission can become a serious topic of national conversation. And it should. Like marijuana legalization, like the abolition of ICE, like a guaranteed jobs program and like Medicare for all, it’s a good idea even if it seems radical at first. In fact, one might reasonably suggest that continuing to criminalize a plant, maintaining a brute squad to break up families, denying medical care to people who can’t afford it or refusing to atone for a brutal, centuries-long regime of apartheid are “radical” positions relative to the rest of the world in 2018. If we never talk about these issues, we never get to talk about why our ideas are good, or why the old ways are bad. Contrary to popular belief, people here in Indiana (and elsewhere) can recognize a good policy proposal, no matter who or where it comes from. It’s a candidate’s job to make sure they actually hear it.
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer, educator and writer. He was lead counsel for the Kentucky plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges, which brought marriage equality to all 50 states. Dan also hosts the Parade of Horribles podcast about civil rights and the law.