On Wednesday, a House Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on H.R. 40, which would create a 13-member commission to "study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery" and the enduring legacy of racial and economic discrimination. The hearing, which coincided with Juneteenth, the 154th anniversary of abolition in Texas after the Civil War, was Congress's first on the subject of reparations in more than a decade.
A day earlier, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the notion of paying reparations "for something that happened 150 years ago," and for which "none of us currently living are responsible," as not a "good idea." Although he acknowledged that slavery is America's "original sin," he suggested that the nation has adequately reckoned with that history by: fighting the Civil War, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and electing an African-American president. Curiously, he did not mention the facts that half the country fought the Civil War in an effort to preserve slavery; that the ensuing century of anti-black racism is what made civil rights legislation necessary; or that a racist conspiracy theory figured prominently in public opposition to Barack Obama's candidacy.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who authored the seminal 2014 Atlantic essay "The Case for Reparations" and testified at Wednesday's panel, opened by rebutting what he called McConnell's "strange theory" that emancipation somehow wiped out slavery's lingering effects. McConnell may not have been alive 150 years ago, Coates pointed out, but he was alive for the redlining of Chicago, the violence of the Civil Rights Movement, and the "relentless campaign of terror" waged in the Jim Crow South. Today, Coates added, McConnell is an elected official at a time when the average black family has one-tenth the wealth of the average white family, and the descendants of slaves make up the largest share of those incarcerated. "A nation is both its credits and its debts," he concluded. "If Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemmings."
Republican lawmakers in attendance were far leerier of reparations than their Democratic counterparts, which led to a few awkward exchanges with panelists and more than a few rounds of booing from the largely pro-reparations gallery. In a particularly cringeworthy sequence, Republican congressman Louis Gohmert began his allotted five minutes by informing actor and longtime civil rights activist Danny Glover that he has always enjoyed Glover's movies. ("Even the dramas.") Instead of asking Glover a question, Gohmert rattled off a litany of Democratic politicians who owned slaves or supported segregation. This bit of partisan trivia was, of course, a gross oversimplification of how the two major parties have treated civil rights over the past seven-plus decades, and Gohmert earned a "You lie!" heckle from the crowd for offering it. But it was also wholly irrelevant to the question at hand: whether the victims of the crimes he mentioned are entitled to compensation.
The United States government has considered reparations-like action since the end of the Civil War, when Union military leaders issued an order giving former slaves 40 acres of plantation land and a mule to work it. But President Andrew Johnson rescinded the directive after Lincoln's assassination and helped facilitate the return of land in former Confederate states to its pre-war white owners. And although Congress apologized for slavery and Jim Crow in 2008, it was a symbolic gesture which acknowledged the existence of debts without providing restitution for any of them. To this day, the country has never even convened something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, which did not result in reparations but at least sought to deliver some measure of state-sanctioned restorative justice.
Like the Green New Deal resolution, H.R. 40 is a modest step which acknowledges the complexity of the problem before it by calling for a careful study of potential solutions, instead of mandating a particular result. The commission might attempt to monetize the damage inflicted by racism, and recommend the distribution of cash payments. But as Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass noted during the hearing, the concept of "reparations" could encompass more nuanced policy interventions, too. Coates highlighted a few potential methodologies back in 2014:
In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.
Neither McConnell, who expressly opposes reparations, nor Trump, whose used the aforementioned racist conspiracy theory to launch his political career, seems likely to allow H.R. 40 to survive beyond the Democratic-controlled House. But many Democratic presidential candidates, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, and Bernie Sanders, have publicly expressed their support for H.R. 40, and the bill earned the blessing of House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who told a Howard University crowd that she looks "forward to full participation of the public in that discussion." Wednesday's event was, at the very least, a start.
Originally Appeared on GQ