Reparations Get Brighter Spotlight in House After 2020 Protests

  • Subcommittee hearing debated new commission to study issue
  • Panelists say reparations don’t necessarily mean cutting checks

Lawmakers took the first step Wednesday in considering whether to provide reparations for Black Americans.

At a subcommittee hearing on legislation first introduced decades ago that would create a commission to study the issue, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said now is the right time for Congress to move on it.

“This moment of national reckoning comes at a time when our nation must find constructive ways to confront the rising tide of racial and ethnic division,” he told the panel at the hearing.

Reparations exploded into the national consciousness last summer as part of a larger discussion about the treatment of Black people following the killing of George Floyd. In the months after, dozens of Democratic lawmakers added their name as co-sponsors of the bill, which was introduced yet again (H.R. 40), in the 117th Congress.

President Joe Biden has said he supports a study of reparations, a position White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reaffirmed Wednesday.

Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) speaks during a hearing on reparations held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on June 19, 2019.

The bill seeks to create a commission to identify the lingering negative effects of slavery on Black people and recommend remedies.

Despite Democrats’ control of government and support for the commission, the legislation still faces hurdles to crossing the finish line. Lawmakers held a similar hearing in 2019 on the same bill before it stalled, never receiving a vote on the Democratic-controlled House floor.

Two years later, Black voters were key in electing Biden to the White House. Their strong turnout in the Georgia Senate runoffs in January gave Democrats control of the chamber.

Kamm Howard, national male co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, told the subcommittee it’s time for lawmakers to acknowledge that.

“Blacks, with our overwhelming vote for the Democratic Party, again, helped save America from White nationalist hatred and destruction,” Howard said. “It is now time for this 117th Congress to be as justice-rendering as the reconstruction Congresses. Passing H.R. 40 on the way to full Reparations is how.”

It’s unclear whether the bill can garner any support from Republicans, which is necessary to clear the Senate and possibly needed in the House given Democrats’ narrow majority.

One of the only two Black Republican House members, Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), said reparations are “not the way to right our country’s wrong” and cast Black Americans as oppressed victims rather than success stories.

Owens, a freshman, served as ranking member for the hearing. The businessman and former professional football player appeared as a witness at the 2019 hearing.

Beyond Checks

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers and panelists in support of the commission reiterated that reparations wouldn’t necessarily mean every Black American received a check.

What form reparations would take, and who received them, would be largely up to the committee to study and recommend. Nadler and others at the hearing suggested reparations could come in the form of targeted federal programs focused on issues such as employment, health care, housing, and education initiatives. When Vice President Kamala Harris was in the Senate, she proposed a tax credit for middle- and low-income Black people.

E. Tendayi Achiume, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles law school, said it wouldn’t be enough to implement general measures that benefit Black people.

“Fulfillment of state reparative responsibilities requires tailored interventions that are rooted in acknowledgment of the underlying harm,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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