The murder of George Floyd prompted a national reckoning over how Americans think and talk about race, and the lasting impacts of slavery. While reparation programs for descendants of slaves are being enacted in some places across the country, recent polling found that nearly two-thirds of Americans still oppose cash reparations — a relatively stagnant view when compared to previous surveys.
“It’s an unpopular policy amongst men and women — a majority of men and women oppose reparations — amongst all income groups, amongst all educational groups,” UMass Amherst professor Tatishe Nteta, who conducted the poll, told Boston Public Radio on Wednesday. “This is particularly pronounced among Republicans, Trump voters and conservatives, with about 90% of those groups opposing reparations.”
The demographics of who most strongly opposes cash payments may be unsurprising given conservative ideology around direct government payments to residents in general. But the nationwide poll, in which UMass Amherst and WCVB surveyed 1,000 people in April, found that all opponents, regardless of political ideology, said the reason they oppose cash payments is because they feel descendants of slaves are undeserving of financial redress.
“It could mean that most Americans believe the debt should be paid to slaves — and, as we know, slaves are no longer with us — and the desendants of slaves have no real connection to the institution of slavery,“ Nteta said.
Nteta said another explanation for that perception of undeservedness could be a pervasive stereotype that African Americans would use cash payments in “frivolous ways.”
The facts don’t back those stereotypes up, Nteta said, citing COVID-era stimulus checks where recipients of direct cash payments overwhelmingly used the money to pay down debt, cover rent and buy groceries. Nteta said this needs to be highlighted, along with the outcomes of local efforts such as a guaranteed-income pilot program in Chelsea, to “counteract the stereotypes that many Americans have of people of color, and African Americans in particular.”
The issue of deservedness has come up before when talking about various forms of reparations for slavery, Nteta said, citing the promise to provide “40 acres and a mule” to former slaves after the Civil War, and the argument that an adequate reparation for slavery was freedom itself.
While public opinion has yet to be swayed in the past year marked by widespread protests for racial equality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Nteta is hopeful to see the ramifications of that work in the future, citing the poll’s finding that young people, aged 18 to 29, support cash payments to reparation. But as of today, Nteta said a federal cash reparations program remains politically, and publicly, unpopular.
Tatishe Nteta is an assistant professor of political science and poll director at UMass Amherst.