Two North Carolina Democrats — Reps. G.K. Butterfield (1st) and Alma Adams (12th) — are among the bill’s 57 co-sponsors.
The bill isn’t expected to be signed into law anytime soon, but it’s elevating the national discussion about reparations for slavery as Democratic politicians — including White House hopefuls — are increasingly willing to support the idea.
“We must address the horrible legacy of slavery in our country,” Adams said in a statement. “I cosponsored H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act to begin this important conversation that needs to be a part of our national dialogue. I applaud the Judiciary Committee for taking the first step by holding this hearing.”
The legislation, led by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), has the stated goal of addressing “the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865.” It would establish a commission to consider a national apology and reparations for slavery.
The bill would “begin the long delayed process of atonement for slavery,” Jackson Lee said earlier this year when she introduced the bill. She warned that the continuing economic implications of slavery remain largely ignored by mainstream analyses.
“These economic issues are the root cause of many critical issues in the African-American community today, such as education, healthcare and criminal justice policy, including policing practices,” she said. “The call for reparations represents a commitment to entering a constructive dialogue on the role of slavery and racism in shaping present-day conditions in our community and American society.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in February that she supports the bill, suggesting that it could see a floor vote in the chamber this Congress. The measure is unlikely to move in the GOP-led Senate, but it promises to fuel Democratic discussions on the campaign trail.
It’s been a particularly hot topic for candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke pledged his support for reparations for descendants of slaves last week during a campaign stop in South Carolina.
In the Senate, presidential candidate Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is the lead sponsor of companion legislation to the House bill that would require a study of reparations. His Senate co-sponsors include his fellow White House contenders, Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.).
Author Marianne Williamson, another Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed a $200 billion to $500 billion plan of reparations for slavery to be paid over 20 years.
Barack Obama opposed reparations for descendants of slaves when he ran for president in 2008, telling the NAACP that reparations would offer “an excuse for some to say ‘we’ve paid our debt’” and to avoid the “much harder work” of enforcing anti-discrimination laws, improving schools, rehabilitating young men coming out of prison and lifting Americans out of poverty.
The House hasn’t held a hearing on slavery reparations since 2007, when the panel considered similar legislation from longtime Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). Conyers introduced the same measure every Congress for decades, but it never advanced. Jackson Lee took the lead on the effort after Conyers’ 2017 retirement.
The commission outlined in the legislation would consist of 13 members, including three appointed by the president, three appointed by the speaker of the House, one appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate (currently Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley), and six selected by organizations that have championed reparations.
As the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties examines the proposal on Wednesday, the panel will hear from several prominent champions of reparations.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and the author of “The Case for Reparations,” — a 2014 article in The Atlantic that’s credited with renewing interest in the ongoing debate — will be among those testifying to Congress.
Coates summarized his argument this month in an interview with the New Yorker: “The case I make for reparations is, virtually every institution with some degree of history in America, be it public, be it private, has a history of extracting wealth and resources out of the African-American community. … [B]ehind all of that oppression was actually theft. In other words, this is not just mean. This is not just maltreatment. This is the theft of resources out of that community.”
Actor Danny Glover is also slated to testify Wednesday. Glover is also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador who has publicly supported the congressional discussion about reparations.
Glover was quoted in 2015 saying, “I’m not holding out for the reparations, but I think certainly that reparations provide an opportunity for us to organize in different ways around the question itself … If you don’t bring up the issue, the brutality of it, you don’t get a discussion around it.”
Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Newsroom network, of which Policy Watch is a member.