Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders caused a stir when he told Fusion that he does not support reparations for slavery on the grounds that such a program would be “very divisive” and would never pass Congress.
Four years ago, though, Sanders did support a form of reparations—not for descendants of African slaves and victims of other injustices against African-Americans, but for Holocaust survivors and the families of those who were killed.
The Vermont senator joined 18 colleagues in co-sponsoring the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, a bill to help survivors and families sue France’s national railway company, SNCF, for reparations.
A group of victims' families called the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice pushed for a decade to get the railway to pay because it carried tens of thousands of Jews and other prisoners from France to German camps. SNCF officials have apologized and argued that the Nazis forced the railway to do it.
The Sanders-sponsored bill never came up for a vote. But in 2014, France agreed to send the U.S. State Department $60 million to be distributed to American Holocaust survivors and victims' families. After the deal was announced, Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the lead sponsors of the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, credited the bill for helping make the payments possible.
Slavery reparations would present logistical hurdles that do not apply to Holocaust reparations because of the relative timing of the historical atrocities and the size of the receiving populations. Nevertheless, legal and economic scholars have published a large body of work on how reparations for African-Americans might be achieved.
Experts like Duke University's William Darity and the late Boris Bittker of Yale University have studied the question for decades. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has introduced bills in Congress for a quarter-century to establish a commission to study how reparations might work in the United States.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment from Fusion.
Sanders is not the only Democratic candidate who supports Holocaust reparations without supporting reparations for atrocities that happened on American soil.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about slavery reparations at Fusion's Iowa Brown & Black Forum and did not give a direct answer. She argued instead for more investment in underprivileged communities, citing a proposal from the Congressional Black Caucus.
Clinton, too, has a history of explicit support for Holocaust reparations. During her husband’s administration, she was given an award by the World Jewish Congress for helping obtain reparations from the Swiss and German governments.
Some advocates for Holocaust reparations said they felt that Clinton's contribution was overstated and that the award was political. Clinton herself played down her role in winning the payments but was clear in her support for the payments.
During her 2000 Senate campaign, Clinton was asked about the award, her position on Holocaust reparations, and whether she would endorse slavery reparations. Without answering directly, she said that "we have some mental and emotional and psychological reparations to pay first."
“We do owe … an apology to African-Americans for hundreds of years of slavery," she said, "but I think that the people I know and the people I work with want us to stay focused on the future, keep our economy going, keep providing good public education, quality affordable healthcare—do the things that will enable people to have the best futures for themselves, and that's what I'm committed to doing.”
The Clinton campaign also did not return Fusion's request for comment.