House Panel to Examine Slavery Reparations; 2020 Democrat Hopefuls Back Legislation

Patrick Goodenough | June 14, 2019 | 4:38am EDT
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Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, left, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Ilhan Omar. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

( – The divisive issue of reparations for the descendants of slaves will feature in a congressional hearing next week for the first time in 12 years, at a time when many of Democratic 2020 presidential contenders are supporting legislation calling for examination of the issue.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will hold a hearing on Wednesday – Juneteenth – on the latest iteration of a bill that has been introduced 17 times over the past three decades.

It calls for a commission to be set up to examine the lasting impact of slavery, and make recommendations on appropriate remedies.

On the witness list are Hollywood actor Danny Glover, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, documentary maker Katrina Brown, Episcopal Bishop of Maryland Eugene Taylor Sutton, economist Julianne Malveaux, and Loyola Law School professor Eric Miller.

H.R. 40 was introduced in January by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). Before her, former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the bill multiple times since 1989.

Over the years Conyers’ measure attracted fluctuating levels of support in the form of co-sponsors, with a high of 48, in 1999.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Jackson Lee’s 2019 bill already has 55 co-sponsors, and they include three of the four Democratic House members in the 2020 presidential race – Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Eric Swalwell (Calif.), and Tim Ryan (Ohio).

Also onboard are high-profile Democratic freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.)

Joining them are the chairmen of nine House committees (Judiciary, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Homeland Security, Oversight, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Budget, and Science, Space and Technology.)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not signed on, but has voiced support for the bill.

Meanwhile a first-time companion bill in the Senate has been introduced by 2020 presidential hopeful Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.). Its ten co-sponsors include all but one of his fellow Democratic senators running for the 2020 presidential nomination.

(The only sitting lawmakers in the 2020 presidential race not listed as co-sponsors of the bills are Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton.)

A 2016 Marist poll found that Americans opposed reparations “as a way to make up for the harm caused by slavery and other forms of racial discrimination,” by a margin of 68-26 percent, but while white respondents opposed reparations by 81-15, blacks supported reparations by 58-35 percent. Latinos were divided, 47-46 percent.

Earlier this year, “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace pointed out that, as recently as 2016, Democratic presidential candidates Sanders and Hillary Clinton, along with President Obama, “all dismissed the idea of reparations” for slavery.

Coates, who is set to testify next week, is credited with pushing the issue up the agenda with a 2014 article for The Atlantic entitled “The Case for Reparations.”

In 2016, U.N. human rights experts ended a fact-finding visit to the U.S. by calling on Congress to pass Conyers’ bill.

“The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the U.S. remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent,” they said in a report.

‘Reparations should be multi-generational’

The last time slavery reparations were the subject of a hearing on Capitol Hill was in December 2007, when the same House subcommittee considered Conyers’ bill.

Excerpts of testimony from that hearing show how contentious the issue is:

--National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America co-chair Kibibi Tyehimba:

While there is agreement that we can never place a price on our suffering and pain or wash away the blood of our ancestors shed at the hands of their enslavers, we have a solemn responsibility to seek what is rightfully due us, in keeping with domestic and international law, in order to heal, repair and restore our people.

There is agreement that reparations should be multi-generational, as the effects of 246 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow cannot be erased in a generation. Reparations should improve the lives of African descendants in the U.S. for future generations to come …

Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom:

… the idea of reparations is far outside of the mainstream of American thinking. If you doubt that generalization, consider the findings of a 2005 National Opinion Research Center survey, sponsored, it should be noted, by the NAACP. Asked their opinion of ‘paying money to African Americans whose ancestors were slaves,’ over 90 percent of whites, Latinos, and Asians were ‘fervently’ opposed. One third of the blacks in the sample rejected the idea as well, despite the fact that they had a powerful financial incentive to approve it.”

It is hard to imagine a more unpopular and divisive proposal than reparations for crimes committed by some of our ancestors in the very distant past.

--Law professor Eric Miller (due to testify again next week):

The first stage, acknowledgment, requires us to recognize that a harm or harms have occurred. The second stage, accounting, requires us to investigate and identify the nature of the harm, the wrongdoers and the people harmed. The third stage, redemption, requires us to disseminate the information discovered through research, and encourage, where appropriate, any wrongdoers to apologize to the people harmed for the harms done or make whole the people harmed.

Given the lapse of time since slavery and segregation, such making whole may take many forms. It may stop at education or apology, or may require more direct restitution (where, for example, there are living survivors of Jim-Crow era state-sponsored violence).

Center For Equal Opportunity president and general counsel Roger Clegg:

I cannot resist pointing out that, if there is anyone in the United States today from whom an apology for slavery and Jim Crow would be appropriate, it would be, not the U.S. government, and certainly not the American people but the Democratic Party.

[H.R. 40] would accomplish nothing and would cost much. And I don't mean monetary costs, but social costs: Specifically, the poisonous effect it would have a racial relations, and the pernicious message it would send, in particular, to those in the African American community, that their focus should be on what was done to them in the past, rather than the opportunities they have now.

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