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Obama Reparations Radio Interview Begs a Question: Does Wealth Redistribution Actually Help the Poor?

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A 2001 radio interview of Barack Obama surfaced yesterday in which he said that “one of the tragedies of the Civil Rights movement,” and one of the limitations of the Warren Supreme Court, was that although they won such formal rights as the right to vote and “sit at the lunch counter and order,” they “never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth.”

A caller to the station, WBEZ Chicago 91.5 FM, then asks if the courts are “the appropriate place for reparative economic work to take place.” Obama responds that “you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally,” but a more effective approach is “the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributed change.”

Does the radio interview demonstrate that Obama harbors radical views? Does it suggest that the black liberation theology of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, plays a bigger role in Obama’s thinking than he claims? Should black Americans get substantial monetary payments from other Americans as repayment for slavery and racism? If these are the primary questions swirling around this radio interview in the coming days, an important question may go begging: Would reparations specifically, and wealth redistribution generally, actually help poor black Americans?

In a new Acton video short, “How not to Help the Poor,” experts on poverty fighting argue that government wealth redistribution has devastated poor communities.

One of the experts interviewed is Robert Woodson, a former Civil Rights activist and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. “We in Washington today lead the nation in 21 separate categories of poverty expenditures,” he notes. “Explain to me why a child born in Washington D.C. has a life expectancy that’s lower than a child born anywhere in the western hemisphere second only to Haiti. We have the highest per capita expenditure on education and we’re 48th in outcomes for kids.”

Woodson does not find the answer in the history of blacks under slavery but in U.S. social policy after 1960. “The black marriage rate in 1930 to 1940 was higher than in the white community. Eighty-two percent of all black families had a man and a woman raising children. But what happened in 1960 when government intervened with the poverty programs, a major paradigm shift occurred and contributed to the decimation of the family.”

Why do such well-intended programs have such devastating consequences? And what has proven to help lift up the poor? The video short also explores these questions.

An early transcript of the Obama radio interview is available here.

Jonathan Witt


  • “Does the radio interview demonstrate that Obama harbors radical views?”

    Of course not.

    It doesn’t even suggest that he believes in traditional forms of governmental wealth redistribution, which is what the rest of the essay argues against.

    If the idea is to suggest that Obama might favor addressing the radical inequalities in our society, many of which date back to old wrongs, then you’d have to condemn every politician now in Washington — including, for instance, John McCain.

    “Does it suggest that the black liberation theology of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, plays a bigger role in Obama’s thinking than he claims?”

    Since this isn’t black liberation theology, I’d venture to say that the answer, again, is no.

    “Should black Americans get substantial monetary payments from other Americans as repayment for slavery and racism?”

    I haven’t heard of anyone who believes this, so I have to suspect that it’s a straw-man argument.

    Certainly, however, Obama has come out against that idea, repeatedly and in writing.

    By the way, I’m no fan of our social programs since the 1960s. But they certainly aren’t the primary cause of the inequalities discussed by Woodson. The reason? Those inequalities were present long before the 1960s, and weren’t increased as a result of the Great Society and its social engineering. In fact, historic inequality has in many ways improved somewhat since 1960.



  • Michael

    Do you believe the prevailing theology and docrine of Senator Obama’s church (or former church)is black liberation theology? I think if the answer is yes, it certainly would have shaped his value system and world view. If he didn’t truly believe his church’s theology, then I believe he attended for political considerations.

  • I believe that Rev. Wright was influenced by black liberation theology, yes. To some extent, the “prevailing theology and doctrine” at Obama’s church seems to have been influenced by that theology, but then, that’s true of many predominantly black churches.

    How can you claim, though, to know what did or didn’t shape Obama’s value system and world view?

    I think it makes good sense to say that Obama is responsible for the basic outlook of the church he chose to attend (whether, as you say, he believed it or attended for political reasons). But that outlook is a Christian worldview, and seems to have been influenced by many strains of Christian theology.

    Are you responsible for every theological influence of your pastor? In my denomination, for instance, we attend the local church. We don’t decide that we don’t like a particular theological influence that the minister seems to exhibit, and uproot for another church.

  • Referring to the original radio interview, I find it implausible to attribute a radical redistributionist agenda to Sen. Obama based on what was said in the interview. I find the leap to talk of “reparations” as if the discussants had slavery in mind even more implausible.

    His position in the interview was largely descriptive, not prescriptive, and where it was prescriptive, as [url=]this article summarizes[/url] rightly,

    “In this interview, Obama comes down on the traditionally conservative side, albeit for presumably different reasons. He thinks the civil rights movement misjudged the courts’ utility—they were good for providing for a right to vote and for black people to sit with white people at a lunch counter, to use Obama’s examples, but they’re not good for deciding who’s entitled to what government benefits or property rights.”

  • JaneC

    Where’s the entire transcript. What’s with this euphemism, “early”? This interview took place years ago. Why the deceptive “early” for an edited transcript?

  • JaneC

    If anything, after listening to the interview, Obama is a conservative’s dream, stating that the courts are not equipped to address this issue, meaning he sees attempts to get reparations through the courts as judicial activism.

    He speaks directly to the foundation of conservative philosophy, “If you want it, try to get legislation for it passed.”

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