Legislation focusing on how the U.S. can apologize for slavery and make reparations to the descendants of slaves is getting renewed attention in Washington, sparked by a groundswell of support after last summer’s nationwide racial protests.
A House committee debated a bill Wednesday that would direct more than a dozen experts to examine how the U.S. government supported slavery from 1619 to 1865 and created laws that discriminated against formerly enslaved people and their descendants.
The commission could recommend remedies, including compensation and education of the American public on the legacy of slavery.
“How can a nation truly heal if it takes no action toward acknowledging the full scope of pain and addressing the punctured wounds of racism?” said Dreisen Heath, a researcher and advocate from Human Rights Watch. “We are at a defining moment in U.S. history and reparative justice for the legacy of slavery demands facing the fierce urgency of now.”
Heath was among eight experts and advocates who testified Wednesday before a House subcommittee on House Resolution 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. The bill would need to be passed through the committee before it can be debated and voted on by the full House.
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The debate over reparations for Black Americans began not long after the end of the Civil War. The bill to study the issue was first sponsored by former Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan in 1989, and he reintroduced the bill every session until he retired in 2017.
Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the resolution’s new sponsor, re-introduced the bill in 2019 and again in January. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., filed a companion version of the bill last April.
“Economic issues are the root cause for many critical issues impacting the African American community today,” Lee said when introducing the 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.
Lee on Wednesday cited a recent study by Harvard Medical School researchers that found reparations could have public health benefits for Black people 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.
Opponents of the bill called it divisive and argued that present-day Americans should not be held responsible for the consequences of slavery, which was ended by the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
Eight experts and advocates testified for three hours Wednesday before the House subcommittee on House Resolution 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.
Witnesses including E. Tendayi Achiume, a law professor at UCLA, and Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, said that reparations committees have international and domestic precedent including the commission that compensated Japanese Americans who were put in internment camps after World War II.
“The highest standard of reparations is needed to adequately address over 400 years of atrocities and compounded and concretized injuries that this community endures,” Kamm Howard, national male co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, said. “No quick fix, no singular action or tweak here or there in existing policy will do. America must engage in full reparations.”
California Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber Weber testified about California’s efforts to form a commission to study reparations modeled after the one outlined in HR 40 and urged other states not to wait for the federal government to act. California is the first state to adopt legislation that requires a study of how the state could provide reparations to Black residents and the descendants of slaves.
Rep. Cori Bush shared personal stories of family members who were denied access to the assistance from the GI Bill, which provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans, because of their race.
“The violence my family withstood from one generation to the next was not isolated,” Bush said. “It was systemic, it was structural, it was political backed by legislations passed by this very body to deny descendants of enslaved people economic and social opportunity.”
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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.
Two witnesses, attorney and radio host Larry Elder and former professional athlete Herschel Walker argued against the need for reparations. Elder said that he believes the disparate outcomes in areas including policing and poverty experienced by African Americans are not caused by racism. Walker said better education for African Americans is needed, not reparations.
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 the 2019 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.”
Rep. Tom McClintok echoed that sentiment at Wednesday’s hearing.
“I can’t imagine a more divisive, polarizing or unjust measure than one that would by government force require people who never owned slaves to pay reparations by those who never were slaves,” McClintok said.
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 Kirsten Mullen 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 several witnesses and lawmakers pointed out Wednesday, the bill does not mandate payments. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler noted in his opening statement that 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.
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard and Nicholas Wu, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg