Even in the year 2020 there are few hot button topics like the concept of slavery reparations. Bring the topic up and prepare to find someone who thinks it's a great idea... and someone else who's vehemently against it.
Yet, the concept of reparations is slowly gaining traction across the country. In September, California became the first state to adopt a law paving the way for Black residents and descendants of slaves to receive reparation payments.
That landmark legislation was authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat representing San Diego who is chair of California's Legislative Black Caucus.
While there have been attempts over the years at reparations on a federal level, Weber took the measure into her own hands and decided to act locally. While the law does not commit to any specific payment, it does establish a nine-person task force that will study the impact of slavery on Black California residents and recommend to the legislature what kind of compensation should be provided, who should receive it and what form it will take.
"We decided to take action instead of waiting for the federal government because it takes so long and there's so much involved," said Weber. "And you have different folks from all over the nation arguing back and forth about it. So we thought this was something California needed to do and something California could do."
Much of the divisive nature of reparations stems from no one being quite clear on what manner those reparations would take. Visions of every Black American receiving a check in the mailbox puts many back on their heels. Weber says that's the last thing she believes most Black Americans want or need.
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"Maybe (reparations) result in resources going into the schools to improve K-12 education for African American students. Maybe it ends up with additional resources that go to those classrooms to create smaller classroom sizes. Maybe it's greater economic development in communities or grants that deal with Black business so they can have a more level playing field in regard to getting loans," Weber pondered. "Maybe, it deals with housing as we continue to see the decline in home ownership which is really the basis of wealth in this country. I don't think anyone is saying, 'We'll just give you 15 or 20 thousand dollars.' What does that do in California? Buy half of a garage?"
Weber said she believes sending receiving checks is far less important than ensuring Black students have a place at the University of California. "I'm looking at things that have a lasting effect," she said.
Yet, the very idea of reparations has detractors at the highest rungs of American government. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in 2019 he doesn't support slavery reparations because "it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate."
"I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for something none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We've tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark Civil Rights legislation," McConnell said. "We've elected an African American president. No one currently alive was responsible for (slavery) and I don't think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for that."
That's an argument that Weber says doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
"I often hear people saying, 'Well, my people didn't own slaves.' That's absolutely correct. But they may have benefitted from the advantages of their ancestors owning slaves or benefited from a system that discriminated against one group for all those years giving another group an advantage. It's a much more complicated discussion," says Weber.
But it is a discussion that is happening. Federal lawmakers held the first congressional hearing in more than a decade on reparations in 2019, spotlighting the debate over whether the United States should consider compensation for the descendants of slaves.
The witnesses at that House Judiciary subcommittee included actor and activist Danny Glover, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Coates, who drew new attention to the issue with his essay "The Case for Reparations," published in The Atlantic magazine in 2014, told the panel, "It's impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery."
As for where those discussion will lead on a national scale... only time will tell.