After racial unrest across US, Congress takes another look at reparations

BEATRICE PETERSON
·5 min read

After the Civil War, formerly enslaved families were promised by Union leadership 40 acres and a mule. The offer was never fulfilled, yet a reminder to the centuries-old promise that has remained in Congress for decades is H.R. 40, the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.”

The bill has been introduced in every legislative session since 1989, and nearly two years since the last hearing on H.R. 40, the bill and the idea of reparations are receiving a new spotlight in Washington on Wednesday during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

H.R. 40's lead sponsor, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing “will not be a hearing of anger and anguish, it will be a factual hearing, the witnesses come with facts, United Nations will be there and indicate that reparations is an international concept of healing, repairing and restoring."

The bill seeks to establish a commission to study "and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes," according to H.R. 40's text.

Since the last time a hearing was held on H.R. 40 in 2019, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has publicly announced her support for reparations. She notes that H.R. 40 has garnered the support of 170 members of Congress and 300 organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, NAACP and ACLU. However, in the three decades since the bill was first introduced, it has yet to reach the House floor for a vote.

Jackson Lee told ABC News, “we're determined to take this through markup, which is a procedural process that we utilize in Congress as you all know, and then to the floor, and then we want to get into the United States Senate.”

PHOTO: President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a meeting in the Oval Office, Feb. 5, 2021.  (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
PHOTO: President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a meeting in the Oval Office, Feb. 5, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

MORE: What America owes: How reparations would look and who would pay

Wednesday’s hearing will also look at the global impact of reparations. One speaker who will testify Wednesday will discuss reparations for Japanese Americans, which were passed under by President Ronald Reagan after the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II.

After the hearing, H.R.40 will need to be passed through the House Judiciary Committee. If it is passed there, the House can begin debate on the bill.

Outside of the walls of Congress many local and state governments and universities across the country have acknowledged their role in the slave trade and are exploring ways to address the issue since the last hearing on H.R.40.

MORE: Nation's wealthiest Black man says corporate America should consider slavery reparations

Evanston, Illinois, in 2019, held the first of several meetings to gather community opinions on the issue of reparations. The city would later adopt a resolution to create a “reparations fund” as a part of the city budget to use tax revenue collected from the sales of recreational marijuana to support reparations in the city. Additionally, the fund also allowed for private contributions.

In the first phase of reparations, the city is giving up to $25,000 towards homeownership for Evanston residents and their direct decedents who suffered housing discrimination between 1919 and 1969.

In 2020, California passed a law to create a task force aimed at studying and making recommendations for reparations for Black Americans.

MORE: California passes landmark law to study proposals for reparations

PHOTO: Writer Coleman Hughes testifies during a hearing on slavery reparations held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, June 19, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Writer Coleman Hughes testifies during a hearing on slavery reparations held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, June 19, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

In North Carolina, several municipalities and local governments have apologized for slavery and segregation while focusing their efforts on prioritizing racial equity. The Asheville, North Carolina, city council voted unanimously last year to apologize for its role in slavery, vowing to provide reparations to black decedents through investments in an effort to fix disparities facing black residents.

"Hundreds of years of Black blood spilled that basically fills the cup we drink from today," one of the lead sponsors of the bill, city councilman Keith Young, said in 2020. "It is simply not enough to remove statutes. Black people in this country are dealing with issues that are systemic in nature.”

University of Connecticut professor Thomas Craemer has studied the topic of race and reparations for over 15 years. Craemer published a paper in 2015 estimating that the costs of slavery and loss of wealth through slavery cost a conservative estimate of $14.5 trillion through 2009, which didn’t account for inflation.

His study also didn’t account for colonial slavery or the loss of wealth due to discrimination after slavery.

He said the recent stimulus checks might be the blueprint for how reparations could be doled out. “[The] experience of trillions of dollars being sent to people's homes, through the tax system might, you know, might be an example of how this could be done fairly easily," Craemer said.

Craemer said he supports H.R.40 but thinks since the bill's first introduction, a great deal of research into reparations has been done. He said the focus should now be on providing "some reparations in addition to setting up a commission to do further research.”

MORE: Some experts propose reparations as solution for decades of racial health inequities

Some other critics of H.R. 40 say that with the COVID-19 relief package still under debate, the effort for reparations should wait. Jackson Lee, a member of the House Budget Committee, said she would push for the $1.9 trillion relief bill and for $15 an hour minimum wage at the same time she's fighting for H.R. 40.

"We can’t wait-- I also join with the Biden administration that says we can do many things at once," she told ABC News Tuesday.

PHOTO: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee wears a mask and speaks to a reporter as she walks towards the House Chamber on Capitol Hill, April 23, 2020, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
PHOTO: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee wears a mask and speaks to a reporter as she walks towards the House Chamber on Capitol Hill, April 23, 2020, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Jackson Lee notes, H.R. 40 is an “international legal concept; it's not something we've created here. It deals with restorative and repair, which is needed in this nation.”

“I think that in 2021. We want to isolate white supremacy. White racism, domestic terrorism, we want to look at each other as our fellow brothers and sisters, and as have been said to the ages, our fellow Americans, I want H.R. 40 to be in the minds and hearts about fellow Americans, pass it and quickly get it signed by the President of the United States," the Texas congresswoman said.

After racial unrest across US, Congress takes another look at reparations originally appeared on abcnews.go.com