Billionaire shakes up Democratic primary with slavery reparations plan

Updated February 29, 2020

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Tom Steyer has hoisted himself into third place in state polls with his promises of compensation for slave descendent. — AFP/File
Tom Steyer has hoisted himself into third place in state polls with his promises of compensation for slave descendent. — AFP/File

MYRTLE BEACH: For centuries, South Carolina’s Charleston was the largest port of entry for the transatlantic slave trade. Now, a billionaire activist named Tom Steyer is shaking up the state’s Democratic primary by advocating slavery reparations for African Americans.

A California financier turned philanthropist and environmental campaigner, Steyer has poured tens of millions of dollars into the state ahead of Saturday’s vote — with a single-minded focus on the black voters who make up 60 per cent of its Democratic electorate.

How South Carolina’s African Americans vote in the White House primaries is traditionally a key indicator of which contender has nationwide support from the black community — a crucial Democratic constituency.

Flooding the airwaves with promises to compensate the descendants of slaves and to invest in universities in historically marginalised black communities, Steyer — who lags far behind his Democratic rivals nationally — has hoisted himself into third place in state polls, behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

“You’ve got to tell the truth about what happened,” said Steyer during one of his final campaign stops at a Mexican restaurant in Myrtle Beach, drawing applause from the diverse crowd.

“You’ve got to repair what’s done so that we can move on together,” said Steyer — who says the United States needs to confront a “subtext of race” underpinning nearly every issue it faces, more than 150 years after the abolition of slavery in 1865.

Teresa Skinner, an African-American retired nurse and veteran, was impressed.

“Tom Steyer’s bringing something new,” said the 51-year-old. “It’s just an enlightening thing.” “He’s just coming in as an individual that’s wanting to make us better than what we are, and right now we’re in a divided nation.”

‘Aggressive stance’

Robert Greene, a visiting professor at Claflin University, a historically black college in South Carolina, attributes Steyer’s popularity squarely to his “very aggressive stance” on reparations, “an issue that most of the other candidates will not touch.” The idea of reparations has been the topic of contentious debate in the United States for decades, but has picked up steam in recent years.

Last April, students at Georgetown University in Washington voted to create a fund to compensate the descendants of 272 people enslaved at the Jesuit-run school who in 1838 were sold to finance its operations.

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2020