In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reintroduced this legislation from the 116th Congress (and prior to that, every legislative session since 1989) to establish a commission to study slavery’s impact on African-Americans and suggest proposals that would help repay descendants of slaves for the costs of centuries of racial discrimination. She says the hearing on this proposal “will not be a hearing of anger and anguish, it will be a factual hearing, the witnesses come with facts, United Nations will be there and indicate that reparations is an international concept of healing, repairing and restoring."
In an ABC News interview, Rep. Jackson Lee expressed determination to “take this through markup, which is a procedural process that we utilize in Congress as you all know, and then to the floor, and then we want to get into the United States Senate.” In other comments, she also expressed confidence in Congress’ ability to pass this legislation by focusing on the human rights violations committed against enslaved Africans:
“I think if people begin to associate this legislation with what happened to the descendants of enslaved Africans as a human rights violation, the sordid past that violated the human rights of all of us who are descendants of enslaved Africans, I think that we can find common ground to pass this legislation. Can anyone imagine that we’ve never gotten a simple, effective, deeply-embedded, and well-respected apology?”
Rep. Jackson Lee contends that passing this legislation would enhance America’s standing in the eyes of African countries and the global community. “I studied and went to school in Ghana as well as in Nigeria, and I believe that Africa should be one of the United States’ closest allies,” she said. “There is an eagerness in many of these countries, particularly with young Africans, to align themselves with America, with a democratic America. I think that the governments in Africa will respect the American government seeing that [America] has finally sought to remedy and repair a great loss for the continent, a continent where millions of Africans were taken from.”
At a February 4, 2021 roundtable with the National Newspaper Publishers Association, White House Senior Advisor Cedric Richmond affirmed the Biden administration’s commitment to ensuring racial justice, accessibility and equity for Black Americans. Richmond noted the administration’s support for establishing a reparations commission, but also said that theyn will move to act immediately on racial justice issues:
“We do support a commission and H.R. 40; we know we can’t wait. We have to start acting now. We don’t need a study to tell us that systemic racism is out there. We don’t need a study to tell us that redlining in Black communities has been treated a lot differently… We don’t think the Black community should have to wait on a study, we need to deal with systemic racism right now and, yes, we support the commission, but it’s not going to stop us from acting right now.”
Speaking at a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing about this bill on June 19, 2020 (deliberately scheduled for “Juneteenth,” a holiday commemorating the day of emancipation for slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865 as well as the general emancipation of all slaves), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) observed that the country has “yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country's founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality. These disparities don't just harm black communities, they harm all communities." Sen. Booker argued that African-Americans deserve compensation not only for slavery, but also for the legacy of domestic terrorism against them post-Civil War, segregation, and redlining (a practice used by mortgage providers to keep African-Americans from obtaining mortgages). He said, “We as a nation must address these persistent inequalities. It's about time we find common ground and common purpose to deal with this ugly history."
In the 116th Congress, economist Julianne Malveaux also testified in favor of reparations at the House Judiciary Committee hearing. She argued that all white people benefited from the fruits of slavery, even if they or their ancestors were not involved, and said that it’s “more than time for us to deal with the injustices that African Americans not only have experienced in history but continue to experience.” Observing that “[e]nslavement is the foundation on which this country was built,” she argued that focusing specifically on racial economic inequality is necessary:
“Racism and slavery was our original sins, and we've got to deal with reparations by dealing exactly with that. Let's not forget that race is central to anything we do related to economic inequality… I want y'all Congress people to deal with economic structure.”
In addition to Sen. Booker, several candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination expressed interest in reparations last year. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (who said he wasn’t in support of traditional reparations for African-Americans at an event in Iowa in March 2019), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro have all expressed some form of support for reparations. Sen. Warren has extended her call for reparations to include Native Americans and members of the LGBTQ community.
After calling reparations too unrealistic and “divisive” to endorse in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary and saying that he didn’t believe in the idea of “writing a check” to every African-American during an interview with the radio show “The Breakfast Club” in the current cycle, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) signed on as an original cosponsor of this bill in the 116th Congress. In a statement, he said:
“For centuries, America’s economic rise relied on treating millions of Black people as literal property. We have still not come to terms with the horrors of legalized slavery and its continuing impacts on our society. I am proud to co-sponsor the H.R. 40 Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act to finally bring the truth about slavery into the open.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) both support reparations. Speaker Pelosi notes that this legislation has the support of 170 members of Congress and 300 organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, NAACP, and ACLU.
Conservatives have ridiculed calls for reparations as unnecessary, unworkable, cynical ploys for Black votes. As a party, Republicans are nearly certain to oppose reparations and use the concept to portray Democrats as left-wing socialists seeking a redistribution of the United States’ wealth.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the idea of reparations. In a June 2019 interview, he said:
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none 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. We elected an African American president.”
During the Juneteenth House Judiciary Committee hearing on this legislation last year, African-American freelance writer Coleman Hughes expressed opposition to reparations for all descendants of slaves. He suggested, instead, that reparations should be paid to those who lived under Jim Crow. Hughes said, “The people who are owed for slavery are no longer here.” Hughes’ testimony was received poorly by the mostly African-American audience. After Hughes finished his testimony, one audience member stood up and left, saying “It's time to go. I can't listen to that. That's garbage.” Former NFL player Burgess Owens, another African-American opponent of reparations, argued that it’s possible to achieve the American dream through hard work at the Judiciary Committee hearing.
At the House hearing on this bill in the 116th Congress, Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) said in his opening statement that it would be difficult to provide African-Americans financial compensation for the actions of a “small” subset of slave-owning Americans. He also added that reparations would be “unconstitutional on its face.” In separate comments on the day of the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said he didn’t know “where it stops” if reparations were to be implemented. He said:
“I just think we are so far removed from the event, it was the original sin of the country. I think let's just make it a more perfect union rather than look backward because I don't know where it stops when you do that. We're not a perfect country but we're trying to form a more perfect union and I don't think this helps."
Antonio Moore, co-founder of American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), criticized the Juneteenth 2020 hearing for being put together on short notice (there were only six days’ advance notice). He called it a haphazardly “thrown together” event “in order to give cover to Democratic presidential candidates who aren’t prepared to deal with the reparations issue.” He also criticized the hearing’s witness list, saying that “[e]conomists, historians, and lawyers are the primary set of experts necessary to frame our reparations claim, not celebrities like Danny Glover.” In an email, Moore wrote, “The bill is far too empty and dated, and needs to be substantially more detailed.” He argued that reparations must address not only slavery, but also redlining and discriminatory housing policies that created the racial wealth gap (which Sen. Booker also discussed in his comments). Moore also argued that the bill should specify that only descendants of enslaved African-Americans should qualify for reparations, that the debt will be in the trillions, and that reparations should take the form of a mix between programs and cash payments to qualified families.
Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of My Face is Black, Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations, says it’s “high time” for a commission on reparations,” but doesn’t believe that every black person whose ancestors were enslaved should receive a cash payment. Instead, she favors giving reparations to the descendants of those who signed the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Boundary and Pension Association’s petitions seeking pensions from Congress. That organization — which was 300,000-member strong by 1900 — was started by Callie House as an effort to ask people who’d been freed from slavery to sign petitions seeking pensions from Congress. Berry says, “We have a group of people who we can identify, the descendants of those who argued for reparations, who sent stuff to Congress while they were being under surveillance and whose leaders were put in prison.” Separately, Berry has also called for a “reparations superfund” to award organizations to spour African-American entrepreneurship or help people attend college.
This legislation has 162 Democratic House cosponsors in the 117th Congress.
Last Congress, this legislation had 173 Democratic House cosponsors. Its Senate companion had 20 Senate cosponsors who caucused as Democrats. Neither bill received a committee vote.
In the 115th Congress, former Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced this legislation with 35 Democratic House cosponsors’ support and it didn’t receive a committee vote.
This legislation is supported by the city of Berkeley, California, as well as numerous civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network (NAN); TransAfrica Forum; United Church of Christ; United Methodist Church General Board of Church; the Detroit Board of Education; and the ACLU.
Of Note: This legislation has been introduced in every legislative session since 1989. When it was originally introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in 1989, it was known as H.R. 3745. In 1997, Rep. Conyers renamed the bill H.R. 40 in reference to the first (unfulfilled) proposal for reparations to African-Americans by the U.S. government in the form of “40 acres and a mule” to freed slaves after the Civil War. Rep. Conyers introduced this legislation for two decades, from 1989 to 2017, until he retired from Congress amid accusations of sexual harassment. Each time Rep. Conyers introduced this legislation, it would be referred to committee only to not be addressed.
When Rep. Conyers first introduced this legislation, it was a fringe proposal. However, the idea of reparations has become more prominent in recent years. In 2014, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations” brought the idea of reparations to national prominence by documenting systematic discrimination by the Federal Housing Administeation (FHA), which classified black neighborhoods as undesirable for decades and refused to insure loans for black homeowners. In his essay, Coates argued that the idea of reparations is the important part. He asserted that the United States, as a nation, must seriously consider what it might owe some of its people.
In an interview, Coates said:
“This is about more than slavery; this isn’t about litigating things that happened 150 years ago. There are people who are alive today who are impacted by policies that came out of slavery… If we’re going to be a country that feels like Jefferson is important and Washington is important and the Declaration of Independence is important, and we’re going to be patriotic on July 4, then we have to be the same way about the things that shame us. We can’t say that things that ended 150 years ago don’t matter but somehow the American Revolution does matter. Either the past matters or it doesn’t.”
After the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the idea of reparations continued to grow in prominence. Many state and local governments and universities have acknowledged their roles in the slave trade and are exploring ways to right this historical wrong. Evanston, Illinois, is using tax revenue collected from recreational marijuana sales to support reparations. In its first phase, Evanston is providing up to $25,000 toward homeownership for Evanston residents and their direct decedents who suffered housing discrimination from 1919 through 1969. Similarly, Asheville, North Carolina’s city council has committed itself to providing reparations to black decedents through investments.
University of Connecticut professor Thomas Craemer, who has studied the topic of race and reparations for over 15 years, estimates that the costs of slavery and loss of wealth through slavery cost a conservative estimate of $14.5 trillion through 2009, without accounting for inflation. Craemer says the 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 stimulus checks may be a blueprint for sending reparations out.
There is precedent for reparations. Under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. paid reparations to Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / ilbusca)