Debate grows over reparations for slavery and racial injustice
Mikala Bembery almost didn’t make it inside.
More than two hours into a House Judiciary hearing on a bill (HR 40) to examine the idea of reparations to remedy the still-lingering damage of centuries of legal slavery in the United States, Bembery stood in line just outside the room where actor Danny Glover, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and Sen. Cory Booker, a Democratic presidential candidate, urged lawmakers in emotionally charged testimony to move the legislation forward.
Leaning against a wall in the packed Rayburn House Office Building hallway, the Boston-area resident says the legislation is personal to her, and she’s preparing to fight for it.
Mikala Bembery, left, awaits entry to the hearing. (Kate Ackley/CQ Roll Call)
“I physically came. I let my legislators know I was coming. I let them know how serious I am,” says Bembery, noting she took a personal day from her maintenance and repairs job to travel from Boston and back for the hearing on June 19, known as Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery. “It’s about this day and my family and that I am so American that my blood’s in this soil.
“That’s why I’m here. I’m American,” she continues with her voice rising. “I’ve been made to appear as an outsider a lot of my life, but no, I’m an American.”
The question, posed by the legislation, is what, if anything, her country should do to repair the sins of the past as well as the racial inequality that exists today. How can the nation make amends for sanctioning slavery’s cruelty and violence, rape and sexual abuse, the buying and selling of human beings, separating children and families? What can the government do to close the racial wealth gap, the education gap, the higher rates of incarceration and poverty for African Americans when compared with their white counterparts?
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Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates — along with scholars, economists, political organizers, lobbyists and citizen activists like Bembery — are beginning to grapple anew with this centuries-long quandary: whether and how the U.S. government should formally atone for enshrining and perpetuating slavery. And secondarily what, if anything, should the U.S. government give to descendants of enslaved people, and potentially all African Americans, in an attempt to heal the damage.
Some question, too, whether companies and state and local governments should similarly be forced to make amends.
“I don’t normally stand in line for two, three hours,” says Harold Hunter, an activist who runs a nonprofit organization called FACTS Inc., focused on racism, who, like Bembery, waited outside the hearing room.
“This is a reunion. . . . Dr. King said injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I guess that’s why we’re still here in this line.”
He adds, acknowledging a long and hard path ahead: “This is not a one-day thing.”
The current House bill has been introduced, and has languished, for three decades. And it’s unclear whether that will change this year, or any time soon.
The House Judiciary Committee, since the June 19 hearing — the first of its kind in more than a decade — with Glover and Coates and Booker, has not scheduled a markup of the bill. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland has said he’d bring the bill to the floor, if it passes out of the committee.
That’s still a big if.
A Long Road
The measure, a longtime bill of ex-Rep. John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who first introduced it in the 1980s, would set up a year-long, 13-person commission to study the legacy of slavery and discrimination.
The commission would examine “the ongoing effects of the institution of slavery and its legacy of persistent systemic structures of discrimination on living African Americans and society in the United States,” the bill states. The president, the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate and “major civil society and reparations organizations” would have a role in appointing the commissioners, according to the measure.
Those commissioners would have one year to offer recommendations in a report to Congress as to how the U.S. might offer a formal apology for the “gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants,” and what form of compensation should be awarded and who should be eligible for it.
The debate is a non-starter for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, who, no matter what happens in the House, says he won’t consider the bill in his chamber.
“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,” McConnell told reporters in June. Two of McConnell’s great-great-grandfathers owned slaves, NBC News has since reported citing U.S. census records. The two, James McConnell and Richard Daley, owned at least 14 slaves in Limestone County, Ala. — all but two of them female, according to the county “Slave Schedules” in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, NBC reported.
“We’ve, you know, tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation,” McConnell said last month. “We elected an African American president,” he said, referring to Barack Obama.
McConnell’s opposition to reparations legislation puts the debate largely into the realm of the 2020 campaigns. Booker, an African American from New Jersey, is hardly alone in calling on Congress to take up the bill, as Democrats seek proposals to appeal to black voters, especially in early primary states such as South Carolina, where African Americans comprise about 60 percent of Democrats.
Booker has introduced a companion measure in the Senate, and the dozen co-sponsors include many of his colleagues also running for president: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar.
The proposals from Democratic presidential hopefuls go beyond the bill and include efforts to close the racial gaps that exist in wealth, housing, employment, education and other areas.
Both Warren and Harris, for example, have offered plans that aim to boost homeownership rates among African Americans. About 70 percent of white Americans own homes, while about 41 percent of African Americans own homes.
'Brokenhearted and Angry'
“I’m sitting here before you, on many days that I come down to Washington, brokenhearted and angry,” Booker told the House Judiciary panel. He said the previous day, seven black men had been shot just hundreds of yards from his Newark home. “I look at communities like mine and you could literally see how communities were designed to be segregated, designed based upon enforcing institutional racism and inequities . . . The stain of slavery was not just inked in bloodshed but in the overt state-sponsored policies that fueled white supremacy and racism and have disadvantaged African Americans economically for generations.”
Julian Castro, a Texas Democrat who served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration, offered his support for a commission to study reparations early this year amid his presidential bid.
And weeks before the House hearing, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg showed he, too, was open to the matter. It’s a contrast to the 2004 campaign when then-Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said he did not support the idea because it would amount to looking “backwards.”
“I think it’s time for us to have this discussion,” Buttigieg said in a June 3 town hall broadcast on MSNBC. “And there is a proposal in Congress called HR 40. It’s named after the ‘40 acres and a mule’ promise that was made but not kept to former slaves. And it proposes that we set up a commission to look at how we could establish a fair and reasonable way to go about reparations.
“I believe that we have to do this for this reason. You can’t just have racist policies for one generation to another, all the way up to this present day, and replace them with maybe less racist policies or neutral policies and expect everything to just get better.”
Buttigieg, whose own community has since been roiled by a fatal police shooting of a black man named Eric Logan, noted the long-standing wealth gap between black Americans and their white counterparts. On July 11, the mayor unveiled a new plan named for Frederick Douglass that calls for a new Voting Rights Act, increased federal investment in historically black colleges and a $10 billion fund to spur black-owned businesses.
The attention on the campaign trail has buoyed longtime proponents of reparations, such as William “Sandy” Darity, a professor at Duke University. He advised Booker’s campaign on a proposal for “baby bonds,” $1,000 bonds for all newborns aimed at helping close the racial wealth gap.
“To be frank, I think this is the first time since the Reconstruction era where you actually have serious political candidates even suggesting that there should be some compensation for the long trajectory of racial injustice,” Darity says.
Data is helping drive the debate, he notes, as increasing research makes it difficult to ignore the disparities in wealth, homeownership, police violence, imprisonment and educational achievement. Darity supports the legislation pending on Capitol Hill, but says it should only deal with slavery after 1776 instead of dating back to 1619 when the first enslaved people arrived in colonial America.
The bill’s number, HR 40, is a reference to a promise of 40 acres and a mule that the U.S. government was to give freed people who had been enslaved, a promise broken. Darity says recipients of reparations should be descendants of those enslaved and that the cost could be upwards of $1.5 trillion. That’s a low estimate. Others suggest the cost could be more in the range of $15 trillion to $20 trillion.
A Nation Divided
The current president, Donald Trump, whose voting base is overwhelmingly white, is also helping bring the conversation to the mainstream, Darity and others suggest.
“What’s different is there is a growing movement driven by people of color, black people, but also white Americans, who realize there is something going on, that inequality is real,” says Danyelle Solomon, vice president of race and ethnicity at the liberal Center for American Progress. “The election of Donald Trump has propelled this conversations faster than under Obama.”
Police violence against people of color, the wealth gap, disparities in education and housing — these are among the concerns that Solomon focuses on.
She continues to bring her group’s research to Capitol Hill, looking to infuse the conversation of reparations, racial relations and economic policy with CAP’s data. She says people of color, especially African Americans, “still can’t get out” of a cycle that leads white Americans to have about 10 times the wealth as black Americans. Some type of reparations or wealth transfer, she says, may help repair the damage of slavery and the botched effort of Reconstruction and then racial policies such as Jim Crow, which segregated whites and blacks in public spaces including employment opportunities.
Much of white Americans’ wealth comes out of homeownership and inheritance, Solomon says. “Black Americans are unlikely to have some type of big asset or inheritance. It traces back, not surprisingly, to the origins of this country, which is slavery.”
Solomon says a large asset transfer, of land or stock options or cash, is in order. “Something has to be transferred because there’s such a big gap,” she adds.
This is where the discussion of reparations becomes politically difficult and divided. Though a majority of Americans, some 63 percent in a recent Pew Research Center poll, believe the legacy of slavery still negatively affects African Americans, most Americans — nearly 75 percent — do not favor monetary or financial reparations.
Akunna Cook, founding executive director of the new Black Economic Alliance, says her organization hasn’t taken a position on the reparations bills. In the group’s polling, she says, 65 percent of African Americans support the concept of reparations but it’s not top of mind.
“In fact, we found that it was very much at the bottom of the list,” Cook says. Higher up were concerns about adequate job training for an increasingly automated workforce, access to capital and credit and policies to help citizens return to work after being incarcerated.
“All of these present-day, really salient policy ideas were much more of a priority than reparations,” she says.
“We recognize and I think we all know there is a historical basis for the inequality that we see today and that we need to be having what is a very much long overdue conversation about reparations,” Cook says.
“But we don’t want it to be lost in the conversation that these present-day salient policy solutions need to be at the forefront of the conversation.”
The only black Republican senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, says he does not support the idea of reparations because it would be difficult to determine who should receive reparations and who should pay for them and “blah, blah, blah,” he added, as he boarded an elevator inside the Capitol basement.
Conservative interest groups stand in solid opposition.
“This comes up periodically, and it’s always the same purpose: It’s political theater, to make people angry and to try to gain political votes,” says Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. “And it’s fundamentally unfair. . . . Individuals who have never suffered the cruelty of slavery want to profit at the expense of other Americans who have no responsibility whatsoever for what happened 200 years ago.”
Von Spakovsky’s parents, he says, immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s. “The idea that I and my family, that we should be somehow responsible for what happened in the 1850s — that’s just an absurd notion,” he says.
The last time the House held a hearing on the bill, back in 2007, Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, told the Judiciary panel that instead of bringing about a healing, the discussion of reparations aims to “reopen wounds, to keep grievance alive, to keep white people on the hook.” He said at the time he opposed economic reparations as well as an official U.S. government apology, saying the federal government ended slavery with the bloodshed of the Civil War.
“With every tick of the clock, the case for reparations becomes weaker,” he told CQ Roll Call recently. “I feel more strongly now than 12 years ago. No new evidence has been uncovered that changes the issue.”
Reparations for All?
Clegg believes that even if Congress were to approve reparation for descendants of formerly enslaved Americans, that would not be the end of the matter and would instead open the doors to more groups — such as Latinos, Native Americans and women — to push for reparations for them. “There are a lot of groups who will claim to have been the victims of unfair treatment at some point in American history,” he says.
It’s not just stalwarts of the conservative movement, though, that caution against moving forward on the reparations legislation.
Paul Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Yale University, is a founder of the liberal American Prospect magazine. In the 1990s, he argued in favor of reparations for slavery in The Washington Post and says he’s never received the kind of “hostility” that he did from that piece. He wrote this spring in the Prospect that with the support for reparations legislation among Democratic presidential contenders, “Donald Trump and Steve Bannon must be smiling from ear to ear and celebrating their good fortune.”
In reality, he says, he would be surprised if HR 40 made it to the floor of the House this Congress because it would be a politically divisive issue for Democrats in tossup districts.
“Politically, it makes no sense,” he says, for those members. By contrast, he says, what’s driving the debate among Democratic presidential candidates is competition for the black vote particularly in early primary states, such as South Carolina.
Even as the 2020 elections loom, supporters of the reparations legislation say it’s bigger, and more important, than any one election.
“There’s never going to be a politically convenient time to have this conversation,” says Niambi Carter, a political science professor at Howard University. “Black lives are as precarious now as they were 50 years ago.”
Even among supporters of some type of reparations, there isn’t necessarily a consensus on how it should unfold. Carter notes that giving a check to certain Americans may be “the easy way out” and that if it comes from taxes, then African Americans will be paying for them, too. A more serious “reckoning” that falls squarely on white Americans to come to grips with the trauma they and their ancestors have committed, makes for a bigger lift, she says.
The commission, as envisioned in HR 40, needs to be given full leeway to think about possible remedies, free of the political ramifications, she says, adding: “They have to have the freedom to imagine what a more robust and just United States looks like, to repair the nation.”
Actor Danny Glover testifies about reparations for the descendants of slaves during a June 19 hearing. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Decades of Lobbying
As the issue of reparations takes on a new spotlight, one civil rights organization, the NAACP, has been lobbying for it since Conyers first introduced it in 1989, a year after Congress appropriated money for Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II; those survivors, numbering around 80,000 people, received $20,000 each, totaling about $1.6 billion.
Hilary O. Shelton, the group’s senior vice president for policy and advocacy, says the injustices of slavery and the discrimination and economic gaps that persist today merit a commission’s attention and congressional scrutiny. Shelton grew up in St. Louis and says he saw how racism and discrimination affected people’s wealth. African Americans couldn’t get loans, or companies denied them insurance. When white people sold their homes to African Americans, fear set in that home values would plummet, leading more white people to sell off and depressing prices.
That’s to say nothing of unmet promises of 40 acres, or the taking of property without retribution.
“It’s not just an issue of slavery we’re talking about,” says Shelton during an interview in the group’s downtown Washington bureau. “It was in many ways what happened after slavery as we think about some of the very, very discriminatory issues that locked African Americans out of economic opportunities.”
To this day, the unemployment rate of black Americans is 6.0 percent, while it’s 3.7 percent for all Americans and 3.3 percent for white Americans; it’s 4.3 percent for U.S. Hispanics and 2.1 percent for Asian Americans. And going back to the 1940s, the unemployment rate for black Americans has generally averaged twice the rate for whites.
“We haven’t solved the problem because the disparities are still there,” Shelton adds. “It wasn’t just by happenstance, it was by policy design. . . . It’s all connected.”
It’s connected to the dehumanization of the enslaved people, he says.
The House bill’s chief sponsor, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, agrees.
“The dehumanizing and atrocities of slavery were not isolated occurrences but mandated by federal laws that were codified and enshrined in the Constitution,” she says. “The role of the federal government in supporting the institution of slavery and subsequent discrimination directed against blacks is an injustice that must be formally acknowledged and addressed.”
For Shelton, the remedy isn’t only money.
“It’s not just monetary, it’s not just giving a check, though we shouldn’t take that totally off the table. There are some people that should be compensated for some of the damages that were done. That needs to be part of the conversation,” he says. I hope . . . that we will check ourselves as a nation, as a society and see the conditions that we’ve created.”
Solomon, of the Center for American Progress, says she hopes this moment is not a blip but instead “a turning point where we actually consider race at the center of our policy discussion.”
The hearing was a turning point for Bembery, the Boston-area woman who waited in line before making it inside for the final moments. Going to House Judiciary was just a beginning, she adds.
“I’ll go home and continue to organize from there,” she says.
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