Opinion: Reparations and that Chicago story Cohen told about Trump

I was looking into how the issue of reparations to African-Americans who descended from slavery has returned to the national political conversation — and wondering why — when a little story in Michael Cohen’s opening statement Wednesday to the House Oversight Committee reminded me.

As an illustration of why he described his former boss, President Donald Trump, as a “racist,” Cohen recalled a day when they were riding through a “struggling neighborhood in Chicago.” “He commented that only black people could live that way,” Cohen said. “And he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.”

Right. How could we, black people, sensibly resist Trump’s heartfelt appeal for our votes: “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Is Cohen telling the truth? Although I approach Trump and his team like Ronald Reagan dealt with Russia, “Trust but verify” — except I have learned to reverse that with Trump to “Verify, then trust”— Cohen’s account squares with other low opinions of black people that we have heard attributed to Trump, who in his early real estate days was accused by the federal government of discriminating against black apartment applicants.

I spent years covering the struggling Chicago neighborhoods like the one Cohen described. I also know a lot of success stories that have come from public-private partnerships between low-income residents and enlightened downtown executives who know a simple truth of urban life: Inside every ghetto there’s a neighborhood struggling to make a comeback.

I think neighborhood development could be a form of reparation, but it will have a much broader consensus of support if we don’t limit it to African-Americans.

Reparations is an issue that began around the end of the Civil War. In 1865 Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued special field orders to grant each freed family “40 acres of tillable land” in the sea islands and around Charleston, S.C., for the exclusive use of black people who had been enslaved. About 40,000 freed slaves were settled on land in Georgia and South Carolina.

But after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order and the land was returned to its original owners. It was one of many betrayals of black aspirations that would reimpose second-class citizenship on black Americans with the end of Reconstruction.

The former Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., pushed without success for almost 30 years, beginning in 1989, to pass a bill to create a commission to study the “impact of slavery on the social, political and economic life of our nation” and propose possible reparations. It got nowhere.

But now, in the run-up to 2020, Democratic candidates have been asked about it and some have expressed support for the idea or some form of it.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California told a host of the syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club” that the idea of reparations should be considered as a way to fight economic inequality. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has spoken favorably of the need for reparations, for Native Americans who lost to European settlers as well as for African-Americans. So has former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.

Most serious proposals, by the way, ask not for a big lump-sum payout to black folks, as many imagine, but programs and policies to reduce inequality and promote education and skills training.

Sounds good to me. Even though I could possibly benefit as a descendant of American slaves, I’m not holding my breath waiting for my 40 acres and a mule.

In fact, the idea of a lump sum was effectively shot down by, among others, comedian Dave Chappelle, who produced a famous skit that imagined a lump-sum reparations payday for black folks. By sundown, the recipients were all broke again.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont prefers economic-based remedies over race-based remedies. That was basically President Barack Obama’s preference, knowing that it is much easier to build a multiracial consensus around programs like the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, that offer benefits to the disadvantaged regardless of race.

But it remains to be seen how much racial “identity politics” will get in the way of productive Democratic Party politics, especially when and if more pragmatic center-left hopefuls, such as former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, enter the race.

Obama’s model isn’t perfect. But it beats the right wing’s fantasy that reparations means a massive socialist giveaway to black folks of at least 40 acres, with or without the mule. Let the debate begin.