For the first time in more than a decade, a debate has taken place between lawmakers in Congress on the original sin of the United States – the enslavement of 4 million Africans and their descendants – and the question of what can be done to atone for it through reparations.
At a hearing at a House judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday, lawmakers and their witnesses ranged over the legacy of slavery, the Jim Crow segregation that followed and modern scourges of mass incarceration, inequality and poverty that still plague African Americans.
As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates summed up the discussion: “It was 150 years ago and it is right now.”
The hearing convened poignantly on Juneteenth, marking the day in 1865 when Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas, finally bringing freedom to slaves across the defeated south. That the debate has been a long time coming was demonstrated by the large numbers of people, most of them black, who attended the proceedings.
Inside the committee room, the sense of pent-up emotion being released was made plain through outbursts of booing and cheering as lawmakers and witnesses aligned to the two main parties made their cases.
The focus of the debate was HR 40, a House bill that was first introduced in 1989 by John Conyers, former Democratic congressman from Michigan. Since 2017, following Conyers’ departure from the House, the bill has been sponsored by Sheila Jackson Lee, the congresswoman from Texas. Her legislation would establish a 13-person government commission to study possible forms of compensation for the descendants of slaves as well as “any other forms of rehabilitation or restitution”.
Jackson Lee began by setting out the sobering statistics of slavery and its aftermath. She pointed out the 10 to 15 million Africans who were transported by force across the Atlantic, 2 million of whom died during the Middle Passage.
She then leapt forward to the present day, laying out the similarly stark statistics of African American disadvantage. One million black people are incarcerated, black unemployment stands at 6.6% – more than double the national rate, and 31% of black children live in poverty, also more than twice the national figure.
The stain of slavery was not just inked in bloodshed, but in policies that have disadvantaged African Americans for generations
“I am not here in anger. I am not seeking to encourage hostilities,” Jackson Lee said. But she said of the concept of reparations: “Why not? And why not now? If not all of us, then who?”
The idea of reparations is as old as emancipation itself, having been enshrined in the promise approved by Abraham Lincoln to recompense freed slaves on southern land with “40 acres and a mule”. That pledge was revoked by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.
But in the modern era, it has periodically risen up again, championed by advocates and politicians. The Rev Jesse Jackson made it a pillar of his 1988 presidential campaign.
Now a new head of steam has built up, unprecedented in recent times. Of the 20 Democratic White House hopefuls who will be appearing at the first televised debates in Miami next week, 15 have indicated they would back a government study of the sort put forward in HR 40.
One of them, Cory Booker, has sponsored a companion bill in the US Senate that echoes the House version. Booker has enticed five other presidential candidates – his fellow US senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – to join him as co-sponsors.
The frontrunner in the Democratic pack, Joe Biden, by contrast, has remained non-committal.
Booker addressed the reparations hearing, saying: “The stain of slavery was not just inked in bloodshed, but in policies that have disadvantaged African Americans for generations.”
The political explanation for the sudden uptick in interest in reparations lies in the dynamics of the 2020 race. Democratic candidates jockeying for position in a crowded field know that they must attract the support of African American voters in next year’s primaries if they are to have a chance of becoming the nominee to take on Donald Trump.
In the early primary state of South Carolina, more than 60% of the Democratic electorate is black.
But Wednesday’s hearing was not only infused with the pragmatic needs of the presidential contenders. The idea of reparations has begun to develop a life of its own amid growing alarm about the racial direction in which America is moving.
In particular, concern has increased over the mounting racial wealth gap. As Elizabeth Warren, another leading presidential hopeful, frequently points out on the campaign trail, for every $100 enjoyed by the average white family, their black equivalent has only about $5.
Black families have an average net worth of $17,100, a tenth of the average accumulated wealth of white households, according to US government statistics. Economists routinely point to the legacy of slavery as a starting point to explain the wealth gap.
That case was most forcefully put at the hearing by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author who helped kickstart the modern debate on reparations with an excoriating article in the Atlantic magazine five years ago. Coates said that it was impossible to divorce the evils of slavery from the modern suffering of black communities across America, because out of slavery came the implantation in the American mind that black people are inferior.
That idea of black inferiority was codified not just in the culture but in laws themselves, and persists powerfully today.
Coates launched into a devastating takedown of Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader in the US Senate who on Tuesday pre-empted the reparations debate by outright dismissing it. In a statement, McConnell had said: ““I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea.”
That set Coates off on a long monologue in which he pointed out that though McConnell may not have been around during slavery, he certainly was around for the injuries heaped upon black communities in more recent times. “For a century after the civil war black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of majority leader McConnell,” he said.
McConnell may not have been there for the Battle of Appomattox at the end of the civil war, “but he was alive for the execution of George Stinney, he was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard”.
Stinney was aged 14 when he was executed by electric chair in 1944 after a trial for murder of two white girls that was later overturned as unfair. Woodard was blinded after he was attacked by South Carolina police in 1946 – he was still in uniform having recently been honorably discharged from the US army as a second world war veteran.
Among the other celebrated witnesses was Danny Glover, the star of the Lethal Weapon movies and a longtime reparations advocate. He said that a national reparations policy was a “moral, democratic and economic imperative”.
Glover described himself as the great-grandson of Mary Brown, who was freed from slavery on 1 January 1863 when the emancipation declaration came down. He remembers meeting her when he was a small child.
“I call on all elected public officials to demonstrate your commitment in action today and co-sign HR 40,” Glover said.
But despite the new wind in the sails of the reparations movement , the idea of making amends for the wounds of slavery still faces a steep uphill struggle.
Opinion polls suggest that the American people remain divided over the idea. A Point Taken-Marist survey from 2016 found that 80% of Americans said they were opposed to reparations, with 60% of African Americans saying they were in favor.
The debate at the judiciary subcommittee was similarly starkly partisan. While the seats reserved for Democratic lawmakers were full, the places for their Republican colleagues were largely empty for the duration.
Republican Congress members and their invited witnesses followed McConnell’s lead and argued that the sins of a small minority of Americans more than 150 years could not be loaded on to the shoulders of today’s taxpayers.
Burgess Owens, a retired NFL player who spoke as a Republican witness, said that as a black man his main inspiration had been his father. “He inspired young people to work harder – if they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, work harder than the next guy, that’s not racist – that’s the American way.”