Slavery Reparations: Legislation Has Languished in House Committees For Two Decades

By Patrick Goodenough | February 27, 2019 | 4:29am EST
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and then-Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., on Capitol Hill in April 2015. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

( – As the controversial issue of reparations for slavery surfaces on the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign trail, a bill that would set up an official commission to study the issue sits before a House Judiciary subcommittee – as its predecessors have done for the past 16 consecutive U.S. Congresses since 1989.

Attempts by the United Nations to push the issue have also made little headway.

The current legislation, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) on the day the 116th Congress convened last month, has attracted 27 Democratic co-sponsors, including the chairmen of the Judiciary, Foreign Affairs and Science, Space, and Technology committees, Reps Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas).

The latest to sign on, on Monday this week, was freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)

Before he resigned in 2017, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) – whose former seat Tlaib now occupies – introduced the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act no fewer than 15 times, and each time it was referred to a Judiciary subcommittee where it failed to advance. Support for his efforts, in the form of co-sponsors, ranged widely, from 48 in 1999 to none in 2011.

Jackson Lee took up the baton for the first time last year, and then on January 3 this year once again introduced the bill.

In summary, it seeks “to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”

The proposed commission would comprise 13 members – three appointed by the president, three by the House Speaker, one by the President pro tempore of the Senate, with the remaining six “selected from the major civil society and reparations organizations that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speak ahead of the State of the Union address on February 5, 2019. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The reparations issue emerged on the presidential campaign trail in recent days, when Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) both expressed support for the idea.

On “Fox News Sunday” this week, host Chris Wallace noted that as recently as 2016, Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as President Obama, “all dismissed the idea of reparations.”

Asked whether he expected reparations to feature on the 2020 party platform, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said, “that's something that will be discussed during the course of the presidential nominating process.”

Among many objections, conservative critics say the reparations issue is hugely divisive, not least of all – Pat Buchanan argued in a column this week – because the Democratic Party was “the party of slavery, secession and segregation.”

“By pushing for compensatory reparations, Warren and Harris may be helping themselves, but they are further splitting their party along the lines of ethnicity and race and elevating an issue certain to divide their country more than it already is,” he wrote.

“Progressives often accuse conservatives of being divisive, of trying to pit us one against the other,” said American Values president Gary Bauer. “It’s hard to come up with something more divisive than telling millions of young minorities that whatever is wrong in their lives now is due to what happened 150 years ago, and that the rest of the country owes them something.”

UN documents, experts promote reparations

Reparations have featured in key United Nations’ anti-racism documents since the World Conference against Racism was held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

The issue of slavery reparations, along with a campaign to label Israel an apartheid state, prompted the George W. Bush administration to send a downgraded delegation to the conference, after a State Department spokesman said, “demands for financial reparations and a formal apology would do nothing to address racism and discrimination today.”

The U.S. delegation subsequently walked out of the conference early.

Its final document, the Durban Declaration and Program of Action, noted that some countries “have taken the initiative to apologize and have paid reparation, where appropriate, for grave and massive violations committed” and called “on all those who have not yet contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims to find appropriate ways to do so.”

“We are aware of the moral obligation on the part of all concerned States and call upon these States to take appropriate and effective measures to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of those practices,” the document added.

(The U.S. was not alone in resisting the reparations push. Britain viewed the notion of paying compensation for slavery two centuries after the practice was abolished throughout the British Empire as absurd.)

When the U.N. in 2009 organized a Durban review conference those same two issues – slavery reparations and condemnation of Israel – reared their heads.

The U.S. joined a number of other Western democracies in boycotting “Durban II,” whose outcome document called on countries that “have not yet contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims [of slavery] to find appropriate ways to do so.”

In 2016, three U.N. human rights experts on a fact-finding visit to the U.S. decried the fact that “there has been no real commitment to recognition and reparations” for slavery.

“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.

The three, members of the “U.N. working group of experts on people of African descent,” called on the U.S. Congress to pass Conyers’ bill.

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