- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) | Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama opposes offering reparations to the descendants of slaves, putting him at odds with some black groups and leaders.

The first black man to win a major-party presidential nomination argues that government should instead combat the legacy of slavery by improving schools, health care and the economy for all.

“I have said in the past - and I’ll repeat again - that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed,” the Illinois Democrat said recently.

Some two dozen members of Congress are co-sponsors of legislation to create a commission that would study reparations - that is, payments and programs to offset the effects of slavery among black Americans.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supports the legislation. Cities across the country, including Mr. Obama’s home of Chicago, have endorsed the idea, and so has a major union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Mr. Obama has worked to be seen as someone who will bring people together, not divide them into various interest groups with checklists of demands. Supporting reparations could undermine that image and make him appear to be pandering to black voters.

“Let’s not be naive. Senator Obama is running for president of the United States, and so he is in a constant battle to save his political life,” said Kibibi Tyehimba, co-chairwoman of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. “In light of the demographics of this country, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect him to do anything other than what he’s done.”

But this is not a position that Mr. Obama adopted just for the presidential campaign. He voiced the same concerns about reparations during his successful run for the Senate in 2004, when he told the NAACP in a questionnaire: “I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say, ‘We’ve paid our debt,’ and to avoid the much harder work.”

But there’s enough flexibility in the term “reparations” that Mr. Obama can oppose them and still have plenty of common ground with supporters.

The NAACP says reparations could take the form of government programs to help struggling people of all races. The National Urban League - a group Mr. Obama addressed Saturday without mentioning the issue in his speech - avoids the word “reparations” as too vague and inflammatory but says the government must act to close the gaps between white America and black America.

The House voted last week to apologize for slavery. The resolution, which was approved on a voice vote, does not mention reparations, but past opponents have argued that an apology would increase pressure for concrete action.

Mr. Obama says an apology would be appropriate but not particularly helpful in improving the lives of black Americans.

Pressed for his position on apologizing to blacks or offering reparations, Mr. Obama said at a recent conference of minority journalists that he was more interested in health care and education programs, which he said would benefits minorities disproportionately.

One reparations advocate, Vernellia Randall, a law professor at the University of Dayton, bluntly responded: “I think he’s dead wrong.”

She said aid to the poor in general won’t close racial gaps - poor blacks would still trail poor whites, and middle-class blacks would still lag behind middle-class whites. Instead, assistance must be aimed directly at the people facing the effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws, she said.

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