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Several Democratic presidential candidates are embracing reparations for the descendants of slaves — but not in the traditional sense.

Over the past week, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro spoke of the need for the U.S. government to reckon with and make up for centuries of stolen labor and legal oppression. But instead of backing the direct compensation of African-Americans for the legacy of slavery, the Democratic candidates are talking about using tax credits and other subsidies.

Long defined as some type of direct payment to former slaves and their descendants, the shifting definition of reparations comes as White House hopefuls seek to solidify their ties with African-Americans whose support will be crucial to winning the Democratic nomination. But it risks prompting both withering criticism from Republicans and a shrug from black voters and activists if the proposals are seen as an empty gesture that simply renames existing policy ideas as reparations.

“Universal programs are not specific to the injustices that have been inflicted on African-Americans,” said Duke University economist William Darity, a veteran advocate of reparations. “I want to be sure that whatever is proposed and potentially enacted as a reparations program really is a substantive and dramatic intervention in the patterns of racial wealth inequality in the United States — not something superficial or minor that is labeled as reparations and then politicians say the national responsibility has been met.”

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