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Recent Polling Data Shows Why Nearly 2/3 Of Americans Oppose Cash Reparations

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Almost every year, in his class about race and politics, Professor Tatishe Nteta likes to introduce the debate over reparations with a certain comedy show sketch from the early 2000s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHAPPELLE'S SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And now a News Center 3 special report with Frank Dobson and Chuck Taylor.

DAVE CHAPPELLE: (As Chuck Taylor) Good afternoon.

CORNISH: It's comedian Dave Chappelle. He's in a gray suit dressed as a news anchor named Chuck Taylor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHAPPELLE'S SHOW")

CHAPPELLE: (As Chuck Taylor) Our top story - as we all know, Congress recently approved paying over a trillion dollars to African Americans as reparations for slavery. Well, today the first checks were sent out.

CORNISH: The sketch is a satire about what would happen if descendants of enslaved people actually got cash reparations.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHAPPELLE'S SHOW")

CHAPPELLE: (As Chuck Taylor) Wendy?

KATIE MCGEE: (As Wendy) Thanks, Chuck. We're standing here in front of the Olympic liquor store in Queens, where scores of African Americans have been lined up for hours.

CORNISH: The sketch depicts African Americans buying expensive cars and jewelry, which Professor Nteta says...

TATISHE NTETA: Connects with the widespread stereotype regarding ways in which African Americans are frivolous with their money.

CORNISH: Even though public support for cash reparations has seen an uptick in the past year, almost two-thirds of Americans oppose the idea. Professor Nteta, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, polled Americans to find out why. And what he found?

NTETA: The most frequent explanation for why it is people oppose reparations are that African Americans and the descendants of slaves are undeserving of these cash payments. So it's not about cost; it's about perceptions of deservedness. And if you sort of dig deeper into this explanation, it's really about the notion that the reparation should go to actual slaves - right? - based upon their experience. And there's a belief that the descendants of slaves have no real standing; they're not deserving of receiving these cash payments, these various benefits that we've seen associated with reparations.

CORNISH: Can I ask what the second-most popular reason was?

NTETA: Yeah, so the second-most popular reason is that it's impossible to place a monetary value on the impact of slavery. And when we look at the breakdown of those who opposed reparations and then selected this explanation, it tended to be progressives, young people, Democrats and Biden voters. So in explaining the popularity of this explanation for opposing reparations, in some ways it's individuals who may be allies of those who support reparations but recognize that any payment that is provided for the legacy of slavery would not be enough.

CORNISH: I want to think about this also in the context of just U.S. policy when it comes to giving cash payments in general. In a way, we're in the middle of that experiment with, like, COVID payments, right?

NTETA: We are in this really interesting experiment as to what happens when the federal government in this case provides to a widespread population of individuals cash payments, right? So we have that from the stimulus payments. And the interesting thing that's happening, if you look at what people are using this money for, they tend to be using the money to pay their rent, to pay down their debt - at some points in time, to buy new things, but those purchases are fueling the economy. And so we are in a moment here. And I think if proponents of reparations are really focused on trying to spread this policy across the country, to use this moment in time to demonstrate that African Americans and Americans more generally, when they receive cash payments, tend to act in the ways in which most people would not assume - right? - that would counter our stereotypes.

CORNISH: But you do hear some backlash in the form of, let's say, a Republican argument that is saying, look; people aren't motivated to find work because they're getting cash from the government. I mean, there is still this idea that this doesn't work the way the proponents of it say it will.

NTETA: Yeah, you're right. Of course, there's going to be backlash against the provision of cash payments, likely by conservatives and Republicans given their ideological attachments. But the evidence demonstrates that individuals, when they receive these cash payments, particularly individuals at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, are using this money to address some of the financial issues that they have faced over the course of this year. But at the same time, you know, this argument regarding the lack of motivation, the lack of work of individuals when they receive cash payments - I mean, there's another way to look at this issue. It may not necessarily be that the provision of cash payments leads these folks to not work; it may be that the jobs that are not being filled are not paying enough. And as a country, we should start, potentially, looking at the level of payment for these jobs, these blue-collar jobs, that are not being filled.

CORNISH: So where does that leave the U.S. in terms of this discussion? I mean, now that you've looked at these numbers, do you see a path forward where this movement continues or not?

NTETA: Yeah, I think we're seeing the beginnings of this reparations movement. It's just not occurring at the national level. So we live in a federalist system, and one of the benefits of a federalist system is that each locality, each city, each state, is an experiment in democracy. And we're finding that in places like Evanston and Iowa City and Asheville, N.C., and here in my backyard of Amherst, Mass., that local communities are beginning to not only discuss reparations for their African American neighbors and constituents but are actually passing policies, innovative policies, policies which take the revenue from the sale of marijuana and create these housing reparations programs that we see in Evanston.

We're seeing in places like San Francisco real discussions about the legacy of discrimination, the legacy of racism that has shaped the contours and the demographics of that city and a real discussion about how that community is going to deal with this legacy and, again, make the African American community there whole. So I think we're seeing it at the local level. The question is whether or not that will spread to more conservative cities and then, potentially, to the nation as a whole.

CORNISH: That's Tatishe Nteta, political science professor at UMass Amherst. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

NTETA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS SONG, "SAN FRANCISCO KNIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.