NEW YORK — Sen. Bernie Sanders slightly modified his position on reparations when he joined a slew of other Democratic presidential candidates on Friday, saying he now supports studying the possibility of payments.
Sanders, who has made support of black voters a central part of his White House bid, has previously said he does not back directly compensating the African-American community for the damage wrought by slavery and segregation. However, when pressed by the Rev. Al Sharpton at the National Action Network convention in Manhattan, Sanders expressed willingness to pass a law that would establish a commission to study the feasibility of reparations if he becomes president.
Sharpton has asked each of the presidential candidates at the convention if they would back the legislation as president.
“If the House and Senate passed that bill, of course I would sign it,” Sanders said.
A reparations bill was fist introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
After offering some support for Jackson Lee’s reparations bill, Sanders qualified his position.
“There needs to be a study, but let me also say this, that I think that what we need to do is to pay real attention to the most distressed communities in America,” he said. “We have got to use 10 percent of all federal funds to make sure that kids who need it get the education, get the jobs, get the environmental protection that they need. And that would be a major focus of my efforts.”
When he has previously been asked about the possibility of reparations, Sanders has similarly said he prefers aid focused on “distressed” communities. In a March 1 appearance on “The View,” Sanders said he wanted to “pay attention to distressed communities: black communities, Latino communities, and white communities.”
“I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check,” Sanders added.
Reparations have emerged as a major question for the candidates in this early phase of the Democratic primary. Other candidates, notably New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris have expressed support for forms of aid that would be disproportionately directed toward the black community.
While Sanders only shifted somewhat from his previous rejection of reparations at the National Action Network convention, he did express support for other positions that are priorities for Sharpton and other black activists. In addition to asking about Jackson Lee’s reparations legislation, Sharpton’s second question for the candidates was whether they would return to former President Barack Obama’s policy of using consent decrees — court approved agreements between federal and local governments on reforms — and federal funding to push for changes at police departments found to have engaged in abusive behavior. Sanders said he supported these positions and that his White House would have “zero tolerance for police brutality.”
Sanders also called for “automatic voter registration” to address concerns about voting rights and emphasized his own history of civil rights activism, including protesting housing discrimination and marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s.
“I am the son of an immigrant, whose family was murdered by the Nazis,” Sanders said. “So, from a very young age I knew that we must stand up to bigotry, wherever and whenever it exists.”