On Wednesday, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend the creation of a commission to consider reparations for the Black descendants of U.S. slaves.
First introduced in Congress in 1989 by the late Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, H.R. 40 had never made it out of committee until this week. Twenty-five Democrats in the Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill, while 17 Republicans voted against it.
“This legislation is long overdue,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the Judiciary Committee chairman, said Wednesday. “H.R. 40 is intended to begin a national conversation about how to confront the brutal mistreatment of African Americans during chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the enduring structural racism that remains endemic to our society today.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, had reintroduced the bill earlier this year.
“We’re asking for people to understand the pain, the violence, the brutality, the chattel-ness of what we went through,” Lee said during a committee debate on Wednesday.
But many Republicans call the prospect of reparations “divisive” and say that people today should not be held responsible for what they consider wrongdoings committed in the past.
“No one should be forced to pay compensation for what they have not done,” Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said Wednesday during the debate on the bill. “Paying reparations would amount to taking money from people who never owned slaves to compensate those who were never enslaved.”
“Slavery was and still is an evil,” Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, said. “Reparation is divisive. It speaks to the fact that we are a hapless, hopeless race that never did anything but wait for white people to show up and help us. And it’s a falsehood.”
The advancement of H.R. 40 marks a victory for proponents of a national redress to the inequities caused by slavery. While the bill does not lay out how reparations would take shape, it establishes a body to study the effects of slavery and the socioeconomic discrimination that followed it.
“This is a huge development in terms of a multi-developmental struggle of African Americans in this country,” Dr. Ron Daniels, president of the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), told Yahoo News Friday. “This bill will go to the floor of the House of the United States to be voted on. It’s hard to express what it means that this nation is on the brink of addressing one of its original sins of enslavement and addressing its aftereffects.”
While the chances that H.R. 40 will earn passage in the Senate and be signed into law by President Biden are almost zero, the legislation comes at a time when several cities and states across the country — including Providence, R.I., Asheville, N.C., Burlington, Vt., and California — have taken steps to introduce reparations to combat systemic racism in their communities.
Last month, Evanston, Ill., became the first city in the country to approve reparations for Black residents who suffered from practices of racial discrimination stemming from slavery and an era of segregation.
By an 8-1 vote, the Evanston City Council approved the first phase of a 10-year, $10 million commitment toward restitution for Black residents who suffered from discriminatory housing practices in the city between 1919 and 1969.
Under the first phase of the Restorative Housing Reparations program, the first installment of $400,000 will be dispersed in $25,000 allotments for residents to use toward home improvements or mortgage assistance. The money for the plan will be generated by the implementation of a 3 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales.
“It is the start,” Alderman Robin Simmons, who presented the initial reparations plan in February 2019, said shortly after the program’s passing. “It is the reckoning. We’re really proud as a city to be leading the nation toward repair and justice.”
While many progressives celebrate H.R. 40 and its implications for accountability, support for reparations has historically fallen along partisan lines. A February Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 60 percent of Democrats support the formation of a committee to study reparations while 74 percent of Republicans oppose it.
Following his inauguration, Biden expressed support for a reparations study.
“He understands we don’t need a study to take action right now on systemic racism, so he wants to take action within his own government in the meantime,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing in February.
But Republican leaders have felt very different.
In response to Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., criticized the bill’s $5 billion fund for Black farmers as a form of reparations.
“In this bill, if you’re a farmer, your loan will be forgiven up to 120% of your loan,” Graham said in an interview on Fox News in March. “But if you’re [a] white person, if you’re a white woman, no forgiveness. That’s reparations.”
But supporters of the plan point to what they see as the ongoing discrimination of Black Americans since slavery that has only evolved over time. They also point to the precedent set by Japanese Americans who received reparations from the U.S. government through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 to address their internment during World War II.
Without 10 Republican votes in the Senate for reparations, however, H.R. 40 is likely to remain a symbolic victory.
“The Senate is not a good place to be with this legislation, or any legislation that’s progressive and advances the interests of African Americans in particular,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., chair of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, during a Monday press call.
“You’ve got to have 10 Republicans right now,” Cohen added. “And there are not that many of them that are going to quit and not run again, and have a come-to-Jesus moment.”
However, Daniels from NAARC, which helped shape Evanston’s reparations program, is more optimistic.
“One of the things that has taken reparations from the fringes to mainstream is respect … and President Biden said he would have the back of Black Americans and we believe him,” he said.
“If it does not go through the Senate, we will push Biden to enact this by executive order and we fully expect this commission to be sanctioned and fully operationalized through an executive action,” Daniels added. “Evanston helped build the momentum for a federal bill.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images, Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images
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