Seven months ago, a House committee advanced a bill to study reparations for slavery, after more than three decades of efforts to build support for the idea.
When the House Judiciary Committee took up the bill on April 15, 2021, it was the first time the committee acted on the legislation since former Democratic Rep. John Conyers initially introduced it in 1989, but since then it has not been considered by the full House of Representatives even though it has 194 Democratic co-sponsors.
“Since April there has been very little movement on the bill by the leadership in Congress,” said Kamm Howard, a national co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.
Advocates for reparations are frustrated despite the fact that the proposal faces steep odds of fully passing the closely divided Congress even if the House did take it up.
The bill is H.R. 40, and it gets its name from the unmet promise that former slaves would be given “40 acres and a mule” as the Civil War drew to a close. It would establish a 13-person commission to study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States, from before the country’s finding to present day.
The commission would hold hearings, submit its findings to Congress and recommend “appropriate remedies.” It would also consider a “national apology” for the harm caused by slavery.
The bill’s original sponsor, the late Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, first proposed the bill in 1989, and did so year after year for nearly three decades, until he retired in 2017. After that, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas began sponsoring the bill.
“I don’t think anyone could argue against the fact that the trajectory of slavery has gone through the centuries, the decades and is in the DNA of descendants of enslaved Africans,” Jackson Lee, a Democrat, said in an interview with NPR. “America would do well to try to bring healing and repair, in this time and in this century.”
The bill finally gained political traction among Democrats as the country grappled with race and systemic racism and protests sparked by the killings of Black Americans by police flowed through the streets of U.S. cities large and small over the last two years.
Republicans oppose reparations. Democrats say even studying them has value
The bill has nearly 200 co-sponsors in the House, including members of House Democratic leadership. But it is widely opposed by Republicans and was advanced by the House Judiciary Committee in April with only Democratic votes.
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, argued that because the committee’s members would be appointed by the president, the House speaker and the Senate pro tempore, who are currently all Democrats, the commission would obviously come to a conclusion in support of reparations.
“Spend $20 million for a commission that’s already decided to take money from people who were never involved in the evil of slavery and give it to people who were never subject to the evil of slavery,” Jordan said during the hearing on the bill. “That’s what Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are doing.”
Rep. Burgess Owens of Utah, one of two Black Republicans currently serving in the House, said that the concept of reparations is “divisive.”
“Reparation where you take people’s money that they’ve earned — it’s punishment, it’s theft, it’s judgement,” he said in the hearing. “It’s saying that because of your skin color, you owe me. That is not the American way. We’re not racist people. This American country is based on meritocracy.”
Jackson Lee says arguments like this miss the point. The bill does not prescribe what form reparations should take, a question that is a point of debate among supporters of reparations for slavery.
“It is not the study of getting a check. It is not giving you a check. It is not the bill on a check,” Jackson Lee said. “It is to study slavery and develop reparations proposals, which would create, first of all, the platform for understanding.”
Rep. Jamaal Bowman talked about reparations frequently when he campaigned for his New York congressional seat.
“We haven’t taken a moment to stop and pause and reflect and look ourselves in the mirror as a country and really be honest with ourselves about how those harms continue to persist,” Bowman said.
A group of advocates has been pushing Democrats to bring the bill up for a vote, arguing that it is deeply popular.
“We are working diligently to basically get them all in a room with us and tell us directly how we can move this bill forward,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery of Human Rights Watch, one of the advocates calling for a meeting with House leaders. “They have the power to do it, and we’re imploring them to do so.”
Some argue that House leadership has yet to bring the bill up for a vote because they fear a backlash among voters. Democrats are coming off of a series of bruising off-year elections that featured fresh Republican attacks on race and culture. In next year’s midterms, Democrats will be defending incredibly slim majorities.
“The Democratic leaders are saying that they are scared if they move this legislation today, that it will hurt their chances of keeping control of the Congress,” said Howard.
Advocates are urging Biden to act without Congress
A senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the status of pending legislation, said that conversations about the legislation are ongoing, and that Democratic leadership and the White House are working together on the path forward. The aide said that equity is a central priority of the party.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a co-sponsor of the bill, told reporters earlier this year that he hopes that President Biden considers establishing a commission similar to the one called for in H.R. 40 using executive authority, noting that the chances of the bill passing the Senate “are pretty dim.” In the evenly divided Senate, legislation requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. A Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, has just 22 co-sponsors, with no Republicans.
The idea of Biden establishing a commission on his own has also won the support of some activists, including the Rev. Mark Thompson.
“What sets H.R. 40 apart from all of those other pieces of legislation that ‘Manchinema’ are blocking, is this” he said — using a compound reference to moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. “H.R 40 is the only one … that Biden can sign and enact by executive order.”
The White House hasn’t said whether Biden would consider creating a commission on his own.
“He supports a number of components of the bill, including the funding and the proposal for a study, which he feels would be the next important step forward and something that he feels would be absolutely correct in addressing … these moments in history,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in June.
Jackson Lee said she’s focused on the legislative process and still hopes to get a “successful result” in the House, but said that there’s a “great deal of power in the White House and in the presidency.”
“I think there is certainly a sufficient body of people that would give President Biden a standing ovation if that was the direction that we needed to take,” she said.