WASHINGTON – A House panel advanced a decades-long effort to pay reparations to descendants of slaves by approving legislation on Wednesday that would create a commission to study the matter.
This is the first time that the House Judiciary Committee has acted on the bill. Yet the prospects for final passage remain dim in such a tightly divided Congress. The vote to move the measure forward in the plenary chamber passed 25-17 after a long and often heated debate that dragged on into the night.
The legislation would create a commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present day. The commission would then recommend ways to educate Americans about its findings and appropriate remedies, including how the government would issue a formal apology and what form of compensation to award.
The bill, commonly referred to as HR 40, was first introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., In 1989. The 40 refers to the failure of the government effort to provide 40 acres of land to newly freed slaves as civil war draws to a close.
“This legislation is long overdue,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democratic chair of the committee. “HR 40 is intended to start a national conversation about how to deal with the brutal mistreatment of African Americans during property slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the enduring structural racism that remains endemic in our society today. “
The momentum supporters were able to generate for the bill that this Congress follows the biggest record of racism in a generation following the death of George Floyd while in custody.
Still, the House bill has no Republicans among its 176 co-sponsors and would need 60 votes in the equally divided Senate, 50-50, to overcome a filibuster. Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voted unanimously against the measure.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the senior Republican on the committee, said the composition of the commission would lead to an agreed conclusion in favor of reparations.
“Spend $ 20 million on a commission that has already decided to take money from people who have never been involved in the evil of slavery and give it to people who have never been subdued. to the evil of slavery. That’s what the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are doing, ”Jordan said.
Supporters said the bill was not about a check, but about crafting a structured response to historic and enduring wrongs.
“I ask my friends across the aisle not to ignore the pain, the history and the reasonableness of this commission,” Bill sponsor Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said, D-Texas.
Other Republicans on the committee spoke out against the bill as well, including Representative Burgess Owens, an African-American lawmaker from Utah, who said he grew up in the Deep South where “we believe in respect, without digging or asking ”. The former professional footballer noted that in the 1970s black men were often not allowed to play quarterbacks or, as he put it, other “thinking positions.”
“Forty years later, we are now electing a president of the United States, a black man. Vice President of the United States, a black woman. And we say there is no progress? Owens said. “Those who say there is no progress are those who do not want progress.”
But Democrats said the country’s history was filled with government-sponsored actions that discriminated against African Americans long after slavery ended. Representative David Cicilline, DR.I., noted that the Federal Housing Administration at one point refused to insure mortgages in black neighborhoods as some states barred black WWII veterans from participating in benefits of the GI bill.
“This notion of, like, I wasn’t a slave owner. I have nothing to do with it missing the point, “Cicillin said.” It is our nation’s responsibility to right this wrong and to respond thoughtfully. And this commission is our opportunity to do so. “
Last month, the Evanston, Illinois suburb of Chicago became the first American city to offer reparations 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 late interest or penalties on city property.
Other communities and organizations considering repairs range from the state of California to cities like Amherst, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; Asheville, North Carolina; and Iowa City, Iowa; religious denominations such as the Episcopal Church; and leading colleges like Georgetown University in Washington.
Polls have shown long-standing resistance in the United States to reparations for descendants of slaves, who are divided along racial lines. Only 29% of Americans expressed support for paying for repairs in cash, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in the fall of 2019. Most black Americans were in favor of repairs, 74% , compared to 15% of white Americans.
President Joe Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination and ultimately the White House with the strong support of black voters. The White House has said it supports the idea of studying reparations for 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 raised the bill during a meeting with Biden at the White House on Tuesday.
“We are very comfortable with President Biden’s position on HR 40,” Jackson Lee told reporters after the meeting.