More than a century and a half after slavery was abolished in the United States, Congress held it’s first ever hearing on Wednesday to consider reparations for the descendants of the enslaved.
For 250 years, captured Africans and their descendants toiled as slaves in the American colonies and later the United States, forming the economic foundation that would ultimately make it possible for the U.S. to become the wealthiest country in the history of the world.
But African Americans have been largely and systematically excluded from enjoying that wealth. Today, a typical black family has just one-tenth of the wealth of a typical white one. Some 31 percent of black children live in poverty, nearly three times the rate of white children.
Reconstruction, the roughly 12 year period immediately following the Civil War in which efforts were made to protect black citizenship, failed. As the famous black scholar and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois put it, “The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
In the ensuing century, African Americans, particularly in the South, suffered under the regime of Jim Crow, marked by widespread racial terror, civil oppression, economic exploitation, convict leasing, segregation, and housing discrimination. Despite the codification of the 15th Amendment – which on paper guaranteed the right of black men to vote – African Americans were barred from casting ballots or serving in public office.
Ta-Nehisi Coates criticizes Mitch McConnell over his comments on reparations: "For a century after the Civil War black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority leader McConnell" https://t.co/UjZHiEHxbx pic.twitter.com/YUHZBpoTkg
— ABC News (@ABC) June 19, 2019
According to Republican Senator and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, this was all a long time ago – a chapter in the country’s benighted history that is closed.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” he said Tuesday.
On Wednesday, a series of witnesses called before the House Judiciary Committee challenged that perspective, arguing that the issue of reparations is not about assigning blame but is instead about rectifying the generational racial injustices and inequities that persist into the present.
The date of the hearing was symbolically significant. Celebrated as “Juneteenth,” June 19 is commemorated as the date the last slaves were emancipated in Texas in 1865.
The specific bill under consideration was H.R. 40, a resolution calling for the creation of an expert commission that would study reparations and make recommendations to Congress.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, does not itself make any proposals for how the descendants of formerly enslaved Americans might be compensated.
The proposed commission would be made up of members appointed by the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and “major civil society and reparations organizations that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice.”
‘The Inheritance of Slavery’
Several high profile witnesses testified in favor of the resolution, including New Jersey Senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker, actor and civil rights activist Danny Glover, and journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’s 2014 Atlantic Magazine article, “The Case for Reparations,” is widely regarded as the seminal work on the topic.
Two black conservatives spoke in opposition to the resolution, Quillette writer Coleman Hughes and former NFL player Burgess Owens.
Hughes and Owens argued that any form of reparations would designate black Americans as victims, even though they themselves had never been slaves, and would diminish personal responsibility for their successes or failures.
“Many of the bedrock policies that ushered generations of Americans into the middle class…intentionally designed to exclude Blacks.” – @CoryBooker #HR40 #Reparations #CivilRights pic.twitter.com/c9JWmA6Yqh
— Legal Defense Fund (@NAACP_LDF) June 19, 2019
Citing persistent economic disparities, Jackson Lee defended her resolution, arguing that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is generational and that their impacts continue to disadvantage African Americans today.
“Even in spite of the glorious overcoming, in spite of the talent that is part of our community … the putting together of something out of nothing, we still have been impacted,” she said.
In his opening statement, Coates directly challenged McConnell’s assertion that it would be wrong to pay reparations for “something” that happened over a century ago.
“It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritence of slavery,” he said. “And that’s the thing about Sen. McConnell’s ‘something.’ It was 150 years ago and it was right now.”
Jackson Lee’s resolution will now undergo a “markup” process in the judiciary committee, where other members can propose changes. If it’s passed by the committee, it could receive a floor vote in the House and would then go to the Senate, where Booker has introduced companion legislation.
More than 60 representatives have co-sponsored the bill in the House along with 12 Senators, including presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar.
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