‘Righting wrongs’: Reparations to Black Americans for slavery gains renewed attention in Congress

Mamos Media

N’dea Yancey-Bragg

Legislation creating a federal commission to study how the U.S. government can apologize for slavery and make reparations to the descendants of slaves is receiving renewed attention in Washington after calls grew last summer amid nationwide racial justice protests.

A House committee is debating a bill Wednesday that would direct more than a dozen experts to examine how the U.S. government supported the institution of slavery from 1619 to 1865 and created laws that discriminated against formerly enslaved people and their descendants through the present day.

The commission would then recommend appropriate remedies, including possibly compensation and ways for Congress to educate the American public on the legacy of slavery

The debate over reparations for Black Americans began not long after the end of the Civil War. This bill to study the issue was first sponsored by former Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan in 1989. Conyers reintroduced the bill every session until he retired in 2017.

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Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the resolution’s new sponsor, re-introduced the bill in January. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., filed a companion version of the bill in April.

“Economic issues are the root cause for many critical issues impacting the African American community today,” Lee said when introducingthe bill last month. “Truth and reconciliation about the ‘original sin of American slavery’ is necessary to light the way to the beloved community we all seek.”

Black Americans are almost twice as likely to live below the poverty line as white Americans and on average are paid less than their white peers, no matter their profession or education, according to recent Census data. Black people are also less likely to own a home than other racial and ethnic groups, a key asset for building wealth. 

During her opening statement Wednesday, Lee cited a recent study led by Harvard Medical School researchers that found reparations could have public health benefits for Black individuals and the entire nation. Researchers’ model for Louisiana showed that greater equity between Black and white people might have reduced COVID-19 infection transmission rates by up to 68% for every person in the state.

Several experts and advocates are set to testify Wednesday before a House subcommittee on House Resolution 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. Speakers include California Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber, representatives from the NAACP and Human Rights Watch, and attorney and radio host Laurence Elder.

“The historic racial and gendered injustices of slavery and its legacy, fueling the persistence of racial inequality today, remain largely accounted for,” said Dreisen Heath, a racial justice researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch and witness, in a statement. “The U.S. must finally reckon with its long history of racial terror, indifference, and segregationist public policies that have created lasting harms within the Black community. That reckoning begins with H.R. 40.”

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As racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd heated up across the country last year, officials in cities including Providence, Rhode Island, and Asheville, North Carolina, proposed measures to examine the impact of slavery and help atone for it, including reparations.

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Danny Glover called for reparations during a committee hearing on the bill on Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated on June 19 that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The 2019 hearing was Congress’ first on reparations in more than a decade.

In July, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer spoke out in support of the bill. Later that month, dozens of organizations including Human Rights Watch, the NAACP, the ACLU, and AmnestyInternational sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers demanding swift action on reparations.

“HR 40 is simply a first and reasonable step. … The bill has been introduced for 30 years — yet for 30 years, it has languished. If the protests have demonstrated anything, it is that action cannot wait,” the letter said.

The bill’s opponents argue the cost would be too high, and that present-day Americans are too far removed from slavery, which was ended by the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, to be held responsible for its consequences.

The cost of compensating Americans who descended from slaves for the legacy of bondage and subsequent racial oppression could be as much as $13 trillion, according to an estimate by historian KirstenMullen and economist William Darity of Duke University.

Mullen and Darity calculated that, out of an approximate 45 million Black Americans, about 40 million would be eligible recipients of these funds if eligibility is based on whether their ancestors were enslaved in America. 

That would result in payments between $300,000 to $350,000 per person. 

Other estimates have placed the cost even higher. A study published in June estimated the total cost of slavery and discrimination to African American descendants could be nearly $19 trillion in 2018 dollars.

As House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler pointed out in his opening statement Wednesday, this bill does not mandate payments and many involved in reparative justice efforts today are focused on community-based programs and “righting wrongs that cannot be fixed with checks alone.”

It’s possible that the bill could pass the Democrat-controlled House, but the bill needs the support of at least 10 Republicans in order to advance in the Senate which is unlikely.

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But the idea has entered the political mainstream. During the presidential primary race, Democratic candidates including Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro voiced their support for reparations but offered few other details.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell previously rejected reparations for slavery in part because it would be hard to know whom to pay.

Asked about reparations ahead of last year’s hearing, McConnell said: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.”

Coates directly addressed McConnell’s opposition to the bill during his remarks.

“We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox … .He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama, in a regime premised by electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited the passage of civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for those legislation, our government sworn to protect them.”  

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard and Nicholas Wu, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

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