Weeks after Democrats took control of Congress and the White House, a Black lawmaker is making a renewed push for a national commission to examine the impact of slavery and reparations for descendants of millions of enslaved Africans.
Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, announced the reintroduction of H.R. 40 to create the reparations commission last month, and next week the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is set to hear testimony on the bill.
H.R. 40 has a long history in the House, championed for decades by the late Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and now by Lee.
The reparations commission would study the history of slavery, the role federal and state governments played in supporting slavery and racial discrimination against the descendants of enslaved Africans.
“Economic issues are the root cause for many critical issues impacting the African American community today,” Lee said.
The commission would make recommendations regarding “any form of apology,” compensation and atonement for slavery, Lee said. “Truth and reconciliation about the ‘original sin of American slavery’ is necessary to light the way to the beloved community we all seek. The uncomfortable truth is that the United States owes its position as the most powerful nation in the world to its slave-owning past.”
Calls for reparations increased this summer after anti-racism protests swept the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. It also became an issue during the Democratic presidential primary race, with the eventual winner, Joe Biden, supporting the creation of a commission.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who oversees the full committee, said America has been forced recently to pay greater attention to the stark racial disparities dividing the country.
“As our nation continues to reckon with systemic racism in policing and a pandemic that has disproportionately devastated communities of color, the need to substantively confront America’s legacy of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow subjugation has only grown in urgency,” Nadler said in a statement. “Discussing H.R. 40, a bill to study reparations, affords an opportunity to do just that. It is only by initiating national conversations about reconciliation, reparative justice, and reparations that we can build a fairer, more equitable future. I am proud that the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on this issue.”
Dreisen Heath, a Human Rights Watch official who is scheduled to testify during the reparations hearing next week, said that “promises to end white supremacy, end systemic racism, and provide racial healing ring deeply hollow if the federal government is not taking steps to advance reparations for slavery, other forms of state-sponsored violence against Black people, and ongoing racial discrimination created by public policy.”
But the push for a commission is likely to face opposition in both the House and Senate, as it has in the past.
The House Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on H.R. 40 in 2019, as the country marked the 400th anniversary of slavery in the English colony of Virginia.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he did not support reparations.
“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,” McConnell told reporters. “We 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. I think we are always a work in progress in this country. But no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don’t think we should be trying to figure how to compensate for that.”
During the 2019 hearing, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “The Case for Reparations,” rejected McConnell’s argument that “America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible. This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into the century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years despite no one being alive who signed those treaties.”
On Tuesday, Rep. Steve Cohen, D- Tenn., chairman of the judiciary subcommittee, said it is imperative that the country take up the issue of reparations for more than two centuries of slavery followed by brutal Jim Crow segregation and decades of systemic racism.
“This hearing will look into creating a review of that history and what should be done about it,” he said. “Our nearly 250-year history of slavery has never been properly addressed and certainly has had an adverse effect upon African-Americans’ economic opportunities.”
The number 40 in H.R. 40 refers to “40 acres and a mule,” a broken promise made by the government to newly freed enslaved people at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
“The Union victory in the Civil War helped pave the way for the 13th Amendment to formally abolish the practice of slavery in the United States,” according to a National Archives history. “But following their emancipation, most former slaves had no financial resources, property, residence, or education — the keys to their economic independence.”
Government efforts to help formerly enslaved people “achieve some semblance of economic freedom, such as with ’40 acres and a mule,’ were stymied,” according to the National Archives. “Without federal land compensation — or any compensation — many ex-slaves were forced into sharecropping, tenancy farming, convict-leasing, or some form of menial labor arrangements aimed at keeping them economically subservient and tied to land owned by former slaveholders.”
Carter Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, wrote in his 1933 book “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” that the poverty that afflicted Black people, “for a generation after Emancipation held them down to the lowest order of society, nominally free but economically enslaved.”
In July, dozens of organization, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, Asians Americans Advancing Justice and the NAACP, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers demanding Congress move swiftly on the issue of reparations.
“People in the U.S. are increasingly aware that there is no way forward from the current strife without addressing one of the nation’s most egregious violations of human rights-the institution of slavery,” the organizations wrote in a joint letter to Congress.
“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.”