In-Depth: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, introduced this bill 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:
“We cannot address the institutional racism and white supremacy that has economically oppressed African-Americans for generations without first fully documenting the extent of the harms of slavery and its painful legacy. It’s important that we right the wrongs of our nation’s most discriminatory policies, which halted the upward mobility of African-American communities. I’m encouraged to see this legislation to study the issue gain support in Congress and the shared commitment my colleagues have in doing our part to repair the harm done to African-Americans.”
Speaking at a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing about this bill on June 19 (deliberately scheduled for “Juneteeth,” 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. Booker 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."
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 have expressed interest in reparations. 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 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 this legislation. In a February speech at Howard University, Speaker Pelosi said, “Reparations is a challenging issue.” She added that she supports this bill and looks “forward to an open mind and full participation of the public in that discussion.”
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 Majority 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, 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, 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 Juneteeth 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 16 Senate cosponsors who caucus as Democrats (including Independent Bernie Sanders). Its House version, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), has 114 Democratic House cosponsors. Neither bill has received a committee vote yet.
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.
The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg says this bill has “virtually no chance of Senate passage or President Trump signing it.” This view seemed to be confirmed by a Democratic aide, who called the Juneteenth hearing “an educational opportunity to elevate the dialogue nationally” around reparations. However, House sponsor Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) disagreed, saying, “It’s not a symbolic hearing; it’s not symbolic because of the day; it’s not symbolic because of the commission. It’s legislation that we think has finally reached its moment.”
Of Note: This proposal was originally introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in 1989 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. 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, it’s gained traction 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.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / ilbusca)