John Kerry yesterday told students at Howard University that he doesn’t support financial reparations for blacks, saying it would only divide the nation and “not heal the wounds.”
“I personally do not believe that America is going to advance if we go backwards and look to reparations in the way that some people are defining them,” Mr. Kerry told Aaron Nelson, 20, a junior political science major, who questioned the Democratic presidential hopeful on his stance.
The senator from Massachusetts said he understood the deep-rooted “scars” blacks still feel in America after slavery, Jim Crow legislation and segregation, but said reparations would divide the nation, not heal wounds.
“When you mention the word slave … in 2004, it’s almost a shocking, unbelievable notion that in this country we wrote slavery into our Constitution before we wrote it out,” Mr. Kerry said.
His answer received marked applause from the audience in the reading room of the historically black university’s Armour J. Blackburn Center in Northwest.
He also talked about his travels to the South in the 1960s as a student participating in the Mississippi voter-registration drive. The candidate praised Southern states for making great strides to improve race relations, which he said in some ways are outpacing Northern states.
“The South, in fact, has done quite well and deserves credit for transitioning in many ways that the North hasn’t,” he said. “The North has been reluctant in some ways, and no one gives them credit for that.”
To win the presidency, Mr. Kerry will need to win a significant portion of the black voting bloc. In 2000, nearly 90 percent of blacks who voted chose Al Gore, as they did Bill Clinton in both of his presidential wins.
For some civil rights leaders, Mr. Kerry stumbled during an interview with American Urban Radio Networks last month when he said, “President Clinton was often known as the first black president. I wouldn’t be upset if I could earn the right to be the second.”
That issue wasn’t brought up during the town hall meeting yesterday.
A medical student asked the senator about AIDS relief funding to Africa and the Caribbean. Mr. Kerry said he would “probably double” the $15 billion over five years proposed by President Bush in January 2003. He said that 16 months later, only $2 billion has been appropriated and the creation of a clinic network and a funding disbursement organization continues to be inadequate or nonexistent.
Mr. Kerry added that because 40 million people are infected with HIV or AIDS and officials predict the apex of AIDS deaths some 25 years away, the United States and the world shouldn’t be “dillydallying” with the money.
On the topic of U.S.-Haiti relations, the candidate said he wouldn’t reinstate former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“I think Aristide went astray. He was no picnic, but what we should have done was held him accountable. … I will fight for democracy, but not a particular leader,” Mr. Kerry said.
During the hourlong town hall session, Mr. Kerry emphasized several times that there are issues in the country unique to blacks — affirmative action, racial profiling, small-business contracts with the government — which he plans to discuss and work with black elected leaders and activists to improve.
“But the main issues of jobs, decent jobs, health care, quality education are the same as everyone else in America,” he said.
Mr. Kerry also committed to the creation of a post for an assistant attorney general for environmental justice.
He said he was appalled that in Roxbury, a majority black suburb of Boston, there are six toxic-waste dumping sites and that nearly 25 percent of children in Harlem have asthma partly because “all of the trucks” traveling through New York City are routed through the neighborhood.
The town hall forum was part of Mr. Kerry’s “Change Starts with U” college tour, which wraps up today at the University of Pittsburgh.