A House panel advanced a decades-long effort to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves by approving legislation Wednesday that would create a commission to study the issue. It’s the first time the House Judiciary Committee has acted on the legislation.
Still, prospects for final passage remain poor in such a closely divided Congress. The vote to advance the measure to the full House was 25-17, after a lengthy and often passionate debate that stretched late into the night.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told CBS News he didn’t know when it would be scheduled for consideration on the House floor. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told CBS News she hopes the full House could vote on it this summer.
The legislation would establish a commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present. The commission would then recommend ways to educate Americans about its findings and appropriate remedies, including how the government would offer a formal apology and what form of compensation should be awarded.
The bill, commonly referred to as H.R. 40, was first introduced by the late Representative John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1989. The 40 refers to the failed government effort to provide 40 acres (16 hectares) of land to newly freed slaves as the Civil War drew to a close.
“This legislation is long overdue,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the committee. “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.”
The momentum supporters have been able to generate for the bill in this Congress follows the biggest reckoning on racism in a generation in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody.
Still, the House bill has no Republicans among its 176 co-sponsors and would need 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate, 50-50, to overcome a filibuster. Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were unanimous in voting against the measure.
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the commission’s makeup would lead to a foregone conclusion in support of reparations.
“Spend $20 million for a commission that’s already decided to take money from people who were never involved in the evil of slavery and give it to people who were never subject to the evil of slavery. That’s what Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are doing,” Jordan said.
Supporters said the bill is not about a check, but about developing a structured response to historical and ongoing wrongs.
“I ask my friends on the other side of the aisle, do not ignore the pain, the history and the reasonableness of this commission,” said Jackson Lee.
Other Republicans on the committee also spoke against the bill, including Representative Burgess Owens, an African American lawmaker from Utah, who said he grew up in the Deep South where “we believe in commanding respect, not digging or asking for it.” The former professional football player noted that in the 1970s, Black men often weren’t allowed to play quarterback or, as he put it, other “thinking positions.”
“Forty years later, we’re now electing a president of the United States, a black man. Vice president of the United States, a black woman. And we say there’s no progress?” Owens said. “Those who say there’s no progress are those who do not want progress.”
But Democrats said the country’s history is replete with government-sponsored actions that have discriminated against African Americans well after slavery ended. Representative David Cicilline, D-R.I., noted that the Federal Housing Administration at one time refused to insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods while some states prevented Black veterans of World War II from participating in the benefits of the GI Bill.
“This notion of, like, I wasn’t a slave owner. I’ve got nothing to do with it, misses the point,” Cicilline said. “It’s about our country’s responsibility, to remedy this wrong and to respond to it in a thoughtful way. And this commission is our opportunity to do that.”
Last month, the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, became the first U.S. city to make reparations available to its Black residents for past discrimination and the lingering effects of slavery. The money will come from the sale of recreational marijuana and qualifying households would receive $25,000 for home repairs, down payments on property, and interest or late penalties on property in the city.
Other communities and organizations considering reparations range from the state of California to cities like Amherst, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; Asheville, North Carolina; and Iowa City, Iowa; religious denominations like the Episcopal Church; and prominent colleges like Georgetown University in Washington.
Polling has found long-standing resistance in the U.S. to reparations to descendants of slaves, divided along racial lines. Only 29% of Americans voiced support for paying cash reparations, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll taken in the fall of 2019. Most Black Americans favored reparations, 74%, compared with 15% of white Americans.
President Joe Biden captured the Democratic presidential nomination and ultimately the White House with the strong support of Black voters. The White House has said he supports the idea of studying reparations for the descendants of slaves. But it’s unclear how aggressively he would push for passage of the bill amid other pressing priorities.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus brought up the bill during a meeting with Mr. Biden at the White House on Tuesday.
“We’re very comfortable with where President Biden is on H.R. 40,” Jackson Lee told reporters after the meeting.
In an interview earlier this month, Jackson Lee told CBS News, “This is what we call the next step. America has never acknowledged the original sin, and that if you look at African Americans today, the disparities that were entrenched in slavery still exist.”
“I think people want healing, they want repair and they understand that reparations is not an injustice, it is just,” she said.
The bill was reintroduced at the beginning of this year after the committee held a high-profile hearing on it in 2019, on Juneteenth, the day many celebrate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Witnesses included actor Danny Glover, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
“As a nation, we have yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country’s founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality,” Booker testified.
He recently re-introduced a resolution for a congressional commission on truth, racial healing and transformation to address systemic racism.
As Human Rights Watch said in its testimony to Congress in February, passing H.R. 40 is essential because the full impact of creating laws and policies that forced hundreds of thousands of Africans to be enslaved in the United States, a gross human rights violation, has never been fully examined, accounted for, or assessed at the national level. Following emancipation, many US cities and states raced to enforce white supremacy and racial segregation, passing repressive laws to limit Black people’s rights.
Organized racial terror by the Ku Klux Klan, white paramilitary groups, and deputized white mobs that the authorities often have not done enough to prevent or account for, helped to maintain racial social order and to corrode Black people’s progress toward equality. Jim Crow laws passed by local and state governments in the 19th and 20th centuries entrenched racial discrimination.
Federal, state, and local policy decisions in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as redlining, urban renewal, and highway construction, further contributed to structural racism. And these policies helped create present day economic, education, employment, and health inequalities, as well as housing segregation and everyday abusive policing practices in Black and brown communities.