The House Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday in approval of legislation that would establish a federal commission to study the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States and make recommendations for redress, including reparations.
While reparation bills have historically struggled to be put into law, mainstream support for reparations has grown in recent years, especially in the wake of the past year’s racial unrest and protests regarding police brutality.
H.R. 40, which has been introduced at every congressional session since 1989 but had never reached a committee vote, was approved along strict party lines, with 25 Democrats voting in favor and 17 Republicans voting against the legislation.
Proponents of the bill argue that eras of slavery and racial discrimination led to lasting injustices, leaving black Americans and descendants of slaves at a systematic disadvantage long after the abolition of slavery and the civil rights era.
“Here we are today, marking up for the first time in the history of the United States of America any legislation that deals directly with the years and centuries of slavery of African American people who are now the descendants of those Africans,” said Democratic Representative from Texas Sheila Jackson Lee, who has introduced the legislation in every Congress since its original sponsor Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan retired in 2017.
“Understanding that the compounding nature of racism has created a dynamic where Black people today must not only grapple with living in a country built on our sustained oppression, but also observe the modern manifestations in our daily lives,” said New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman.
President Biden has recently expressed support for slavery reparations, which was one of his campaign promises.
The committee’s approval of the bill comes at a time when systematic racism is at the forefront of national dialogue and issues of racial injustice are pervasive.
Black people in the United States have been affected by COVID-19 at three times the rate as white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to a study in The Washington Post, the economic divide between White and Black Americans today is as wide as it was in 1968. In 2016, the typical middle-class black household had $13,024 in wealth versus $149,703 for the median white household.
Additionally, recent police shootings have caused many to question whether the shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and other black Americans are a reflection of larger, underlying systematic issues of racism rather than simply isolated incidents.
Following Sunday’s police shooting of 20-year-old black man Daunte Wright, there is a growing call to address the pervasive racial issues in the United States. Many believe that reparations for the Black community could be a step in the right direction.
While the movement toward reparations for slavery currently has unprecedented levels of mainstream support, H.R. 40 still has an uphill battle ahead of it and there is a long way to go before it can be integrated into law.
Whether the bill will be voted on by the full House of Representatives is currently unclear. If the bill does manage to make its way to the Senate, it will need 60 votes in order to avoid a filibuster.
As exemplified by Wednesday’s party-line vote, reparations for slavery are a controversial idea and do not have bipartisan support from across the aisle.
“Look, everyone knows how evil slavery was, wrong as wrong can be. But this is not something we should be passing,” said Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, arguing that it is not a wise use of federal funds.
One of two Black Republicans in the House, Representative Burgess Owens argued that the bill portrays Black communities as helpless, saying, “Reparation is divisive. It speaks to the fact that we are a hapless, hopeless race that never did anything but wait for White people to show up and help us, and it’s a falsehood.”
While H.R. 40 has plenty of critics and opponents, the bill also has immense support. A coalition of over 300 groups including the National African American Reparations Commission, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, Color of Change, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The bill has also received support from many businesses, politicians, celebrities, and interest groups.
While nothing is passed yet, Congress could be on the verge of doing something historic, which Representative Sheila Jackson Lee referred to as a first step on a “path to restorative justice.”