A House committee late Wednesday took an unprecedented step to advance legislation to examine whether the federal government should provide slavery reparations to African Americans.
Democrats, who control the majority, passed the bill without any GOP support after engaging in partisan bickering of who was responsible for slavery.
The bill, H.R. 40, is named after the unkept promise to provide freed slaves “40 acres and a mule.” It has 175 Democratic co-sponsors in the House, representing the majority of the entire caucus. The measure would create a 13-member commission that would study the impact of slavery and subsequent racial discrimination and whether the government should provide reparations.
“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,” Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat said.
Bill sponsor Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said the measure’s focus in not on reparations payments, but on studying the impact of the long-term damage caused by slavery and subsequent discrimination against African Americans.
“Consequently the reparations movement does not focus only on payments, but it focus on remedies that can be created in many forms necessary to adequately address the many kinds of injuries sustained from the chattel slavery and its continuing vestiges,” Lee said.
While the bill is advanced out of committee, a floor vote remains uncertain.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, would not indicate when, or if, the measure will get a floor vote. Both Hoyer and Speaker Pelosi, a California Democrat, said they back the measure.
Hoyer, however, encouraged President Joe Biden to create a commission to study the matter.
“I would hope that the President himself would move ahead with the convening of a commission, a presidential commission, that would look at this issue, and come up with suggestions as to what actions are appropriate and possible to overcome the ordinary extraordinary bad impact of slavery on future generations, including present generations of African Americans,” Hoyer said.
Republicans spoke in opposition to the legislation, including Burgess Owens, a Utah Republican and an African American.
Owens said the bill would divide the nation and is necessary.
“Reparations is divisive,” Owens, a former NFL player, said, “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.”
Republicans said Democrats are further dividing the nation along racial lines by dragging up the past.
“You say this is healing,” Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said, “It is precisely the opposite.”
Proponents of the measure believe they can leverage recent civil unrest related to police misconduct as well as opposition to new red-state voter laws and anger over wealth disparities to help push the bill into law. The bill is gaining momentum after remaining mostly dormant since it was introduced more than three decades ago by the late Sen. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.
Democrats said the measure is needed to rectify modern-day disparities in pay, health care, education and housing that negatively impact the African American community.
“These disparities will never be fully addressed until we are able to acknowledge the great historic wrongs committed against African Americans,” Rep. David Cicillini, a Rhode Island Democrat, said. “H.R. 40 provides acknowledgment that a grave sin was committed against Black Americans, a stain on the soul of America.”
Republicans argued it would be senseless to have reparations paid when neither slaves nor slave owners are alive today and it would punish and reward people who had nothing to do with slavery.
Democrats rejected an amendment by Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, which would have left Democrats solely responsible for paying any reparations “since it is the only relevant entity in existence today that supported the institution of slavery.”
Democrats said the southern states and religious groups are to blame for slavery and subsequent discrimination against blacks and not the Democratic party that controlled the South in the decades before and after the Civil War.
Democrats pointed to incidents of modern day racism and discrimination, pointing to police shootings and white supremacist groups. The reparations bill would force Americans to look back and reflect on the damage caused by slavery and racial discrimination.
“We still live today with the vestiges of slavery and the Jim Crow era,” Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, said. “Racism never took a day off and is alive and well in America.”
“The least we can do,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, said, “is study these historic wrongs.”
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