No More Negro Stuff: What Did Obama Say About Reparations?

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison
Danielle Metz
Former President Barack Obama accepts the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award at a ceremony, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

As the topic of reparations continues to dominate the national conversation, former President Barack Obama’s position on the matter keeps coming up. Though Obama has not recently said anything about where he stands on the issue, those who are anti-reparations have been using the 44th POTUS’ words from over a decade ago to shore up their arguments.

In 2008 during his first presidential run, Obama delivered a speech entitled “A More Perfect Union.” The speech was in response to the media frenzy surrounding remarks made by his then-pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright during some of his sermons.

During the speech, Obama said “ … the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America …”

The speech received rave reviews and that same year, Obama doubled down on his sentiments that the country should focus on ensuring a post-racial America by stating he didn’t think reparations were the ultimate solution to atoning for America’s ‘original sin,” reported the Washington Post.

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“I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say ‘we’ve paid our debt’ and to avoid the much harder work of enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing; the much harder work of making sure that our schools are not separate and unequal; the much harder work of providing job training programs and rehabilitating young men coming out of prison every year; and the much harder work of lifting 37 million Americans of all races out of poverty. … These challenges will not go away with reparations. So while I applaud and agree with the underlying sentiment of recognizing the continued legacy of slavery, I would prefer to focus on the issues that will directly address these problems — and building a consensus to do just that,” Obama wrote on a NAACP questionnaire.

Now reparations are once again a major topic for candidates in the 2020 election. When asked about the topic Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and USA Today op-ed writer James S. Robbins both cited Obama’s words in their cases against reparations.

In fact, McConnell said Obama himself was a form of reparations and atonement for slavery before noting the commonalities the two share.

“I find myself once again in the same position as President Obama. We both opposed reparations and we both are the descendants of slave owners,” McConnell said.

Robbins shared McConnell’s sentiments.

“Even the word “reparation” is problematic. Obama, who did not pursue this issue during his presidency, noted in 2004 that the concept and its implication of a one-time payoff “would be an excuse for some to say we’ve paid our debt” and not continue efforts to promote racial harmony. … It is unlikely that a reparation would repair anything but instead widen the breach,” Robbins wrote.

While Obama has yet to address the issue again, there is no doubt his past comments are being weaponized against the case for reparations. It may not have been his intention, but it is happening anyway. Since the last few years have highlighted America is anything but post-racial, it will be interesting to see how Obama’s past comments affect the country’s political future.