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Feb. 17, 2021, 3:08 p.m. EST

‘Long overdue’: Debate over reparations for Black Americans reignites on Capitol Hill

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By Meera Jagannathan

The debate over whether Black Americans should receive compensation to make up for America’s racist past reignited at a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday, with advocates saying reparations would put the U.S. on a path to “restorative justice” and opponents dubbing the idea “impractical.”

People on both sides of the reparations debate testified during a virtual House subcommittee hearing on H.R. 40, a bill that would create a commission to study and propose reparations for African-Americans in light of slavery and historical discrimination.

Supporters say the long-proposed bill has new urgency and momentum because of last year’s police-brutality protests, the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans, and the presence of hate groups at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. 

“Now more than ever, the facts and circumstances facing our nation demonstrate the importance of H.R. 40 and the necessity of placing our nation on the path to reparative justice,” the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas), said during the hearing held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Jackson Lee last month reintroduced House bill H.R. 40 , which would establish a $12 million commission to study the history of slavery in the colonies and United States, the federal and state governments’ role in supporting slavery, and discrimination against freed slaves and their descendants. The 13-member commission would also recommend “appropriate remedies.”

Before Jackson Lee took up the bill’s mantle, the late Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.) had repeatedly reintroduced the legislation since 1989. The name H.R. 40 is a reference to “40 acres and a mule,” the unfulfilled land-grant promise made to formerly enslaved people after the Civil War.

The congresswoman, who submitted pictures of lynchings and brutalizations of Black Americans to be entered into the record, noted during the hearing that this would be “an active commission.” “It is to study, but it is also to develop reparation proposals,” she said.

But the bill does not draw any conclusion about how to properly atone for the legacy of slavery, nor does it mandate financial payments or “prejudge the outcome of the commission’s work,” Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) added. 

“Instead, it sets forth a process by which a diverse group of experts and stakeholders can study the complex issues involved and make recommendations,” Nadler said. “In fact, most serious reparations models that have been proposed to date have focused on reparative community-based programs of employment, healthcare, housing and educational initiatives — righting wrongs that cannot be fixed with checks alone.”

Rep. Burgess Owens, a former NFL player and newly elected Utah Republican who testified against H.R. 40 in a 2019 hearing and served as the ranking member on the subcommittee Wednesday, noted that his great-great-grandfather Silas “arrived here in the belly of a slave ship.” But reparations are “not the way to right our country’s wrong,” he argued, calling the idea “impractical and a nonstarter.”

Wednesday’s hearing included testimony from California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, UCLA School of Law professor E. Tendayi Achiume, former NFL player Herschel Walker, attorney and conservative radio host Larry Elder, Human Rights Watch racial-justice researcher Dreisen Heath, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress co-chair Kathy Masaoka, and National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America national male co-chair Kamm Howard.

Heath argued that “if racial justice is ever to be achieved, ‘repair’ needs to be part of the equation.” 

“The concept of reparations is well established in international human-rights law. At its core is the idea that economic and social conditions cannot improve without addressing and repairing harm,” Heath said. “The U.S. has never fully or properly reckoned with the gross human-rights violation of chattel slavery and the post-emancipation racist policies that continue to impact Black people in the U.S. today.”

And Achiume, an expert in international human-rights law, added that while popular conceptions of reparations tended to be relatively narrow and focus only on financial compensation, the international system emphasizes a more comprehensive approach that may also include transforming political, economic and social institutions.

“Reparations for slavery are an integral part of fulfilling the international legal mandate to eliminate racial discrimination,” Achiume added. “The United States is not exempt from these responsibilities, and H.R. 40 would represent important progress in fulfilling its obligations under international law.”

Weber, who was sworn in last month as California’s first Black secretary of state, spoke of her efforts spearheading a state law as a California assemblywoman to establish a task force to study the issue of reparations for descendants of enslaved people. That effort, she said, should not preclude the potential for reparations at the federal level.

“Out of all due respect, Californians can no longer wait for the national government to do its job,” Weber said. “We believe that we must do what is necessary for Californians and be an example of what can happen in this nation when there is serious discussion and research done on African Americans and the impact of slavery.”

Masaoka, meanwhile, wove together Japanese Americans’ and Black Americans’ respective fights for reparations and reiterated her organization’s support for H.R. 40. Japanese Americans won reparations from the U.S. government in 1988 for their incarceration during World War II.

“It was important for Japanese Americans to determine our own path toward redress and reparations, and we fully stand behind the Black community as they determine their own path forward,” she said. Reparations for Black Americans are “the right thing to do” and “long overdue,” she added.

But Walker, a prominent supporter of former President Donald Trump who spoke at last year’s Republican National Convention, raised questions about how reparations would play out in practice. 

“Where would the money come from? Does it come from all the other races except the Black taxpayers?” he said. “Who is Black? What percent of Black must you be to receive reparations? Do you go to 23 and Me or a DNA test to determine the percentage of Blackness?”

And Elder, who also opposes reparations, said he found it “ironic” that this conversation was taking place 13 years after the country elected its first Black president. “Reparations is the extraction of money from people who were never slave owners to be given to people who were never slaves,” he added in a statement released ahead of the hearing.

H.R. 40 was previously the subject of a June 19, 2019 congressional hearing that included testimony from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, actor Danny Glover and Sen. Cory Booker (D, N.J.), who also introduced a Senate companion bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), said in 2019 he believed reparations aren’t a “good idea” and that “no one currently alive was responsible for that.” Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black GOP senator, also rejected the idea: “I don’t think reparations help level the playing field — it might help more eruptions on the playing field,” he said last year.

Ultimately, almost every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate threw their support behind the idea of studying potential reparations proposals. President Joe Biden said during the campaign that his administration would support a study of reparations, but he has not specifically backed H.R. 40.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Wednesday that Biden supports studying reparations. “And he continues to demonstrate his commitment to take comprehensive action to address the systemic racism that persists today,” Psaki added, pointing to an executive order Biden signed on his first day in office to address racial equity .

Smaller efforts to consider reparations have also arisen in recent years. Schools like Georgetown University, for example, have examined their legacies of slavery and sought to compensate descendants of enslaved people through various means. The Evanston, Ill., city council has also committed to putting tax revenue from recreational cannabis sales toward reparations, and the city council in Asheville, N.C. approved a resolution last July supporting “community reparations” for Black residents.

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