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A bill on studying reparations is getting a House vote 30 years in the making

The House Judiciary Committee will consider a bill that would create a federal commission to study reparations.

Jackson Lee, in a black and white plaid suit jacket and white face mask, sits at a desk; behind her sits Rep. Jerry Nadler; and behind him, a US flag.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), the sponsor of HR 40, at a Judiciary Committee hearing in March 2021.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House Judiciary Committee is preparing for a vote on reparations that has been 32 years in the making.

Wednesday, the committee will mark up and vote on HR 40 — a bill sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) that would create a 13-person federal commission to study American slavery, its effects, and what the government might do to mitigate those effects. After completing its study, the commission would be required to issue recommendations on possible “forms of rehabilitation or restitution” — essentially, reparations — to Congress.

Reparations, generally interpreted as financial compensation to descendants of enslaved people, have historically received little support. According to a July 2020 Washington Post/ABC News poll, reparations aren’t overwhelmingly supported by Democrats: 53 percent of Democrats approve of them. And there’s almost no support for reparations — just 6 percent — in the GOP.

Generally, critics (including many GOP lawmakers) have argued reparations are prohibitively expensive, with Duke University economist William Darity Jr. and Artefactual founder Kirsten Mullen estimating they would cost the federal government between $10 trillion and $12 trillion. Other opponents claim they would force Americans with no history of benefiting from enslavement to pay for the moral crimes of others.

Supporters argue the federal government would be capable of making such a large payment, and say this latter view ignores the benefits created by generational wealth and the negative effects of present-day systemic racism that has its roots in slavery. Specifically, advocates for HR 40 are promoting the idea of reparations as an important tool, not only to finally atone for the moral ills of slavery, but also to close current gaps between white and Black Americans in things like wealth and homeownership.

For instance, the average white family is more than 10 times wealthier than an average Black family, and white non-college graduates have more wealth than Black college graduates, according an April 2020 report from the Brookings Institution on the need for reparations. As the Economic Policy Institute has explained, there is a similar gap between the wages of Black and white workers — making it extremely difficult for labor alone to close that wealth gap.

Some policy experts and lawmakers see reparations as an effective way around this problem — and have for some time. The earliest version of HR 40 was first introduced in the House by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in 1989, before the youngest current member of the House was even born. The Korean War veteran and civil rights icon brought his proposal back up for consideration every year until he retired in 2017.

Now, Lee is leading the charge to push it through Congress. It is expected to face Republican opposition in committee, and — given that not all members of the slim Democratic House majority support the idea of reparations — it’s uncertain whether the bill will make it to a vote. Should a successful floor vote happen, Senate Democrats seem unlikely to find the 10 Republican votes they would need to pass it in the Senate, given the fact that GOP leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been open about their opposition to reparations in the past.

Still, that HR 40 will receive a committee vote for the first time in its history is a reflection of how attitudes toward reparations, and racial justice more broadly, are changing.

In 1999, just 19 percent of Americans in an ABC News poll approved of compensation for Black Americans. The July 2020 Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 31 percent of respondents now support reparations. As worldwide civil rights protests erupted following the killing of George Floyd, renewed interest was paid to the issue — and it became a topic of debate during the 2020 presidential race, with President Joe Biden’s campaign platform including the creation of a commission to study reparations.

That interest has been sustained. And now, after more than three decades spent languishing in the House, HR 40 will get a committee vote.

Briefly, what’s in HR 40, the House’s bill to study reparations

If passed, HR 40 would establish a “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans,” composed of 13 members, with three to be chosen by the president, three by the speaker of the House, one by the president pro tempore of the Senate, and another six by “major” civil rights groups “that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice.”

The commission would be charged with determining institutional culpability against former enslaved Africans and their American descendants across the public and private sector. It would also be required to interrogate how practices such as redlining, educational funding discrepancies, and predatory financial practices — alongside enslavement — have exacerbated racial opportunity and wealth gaps.

At the conclusion of their work, the commission would then report “appropriate remedies” to Congress, based on its findings on institutional enslavement and racism.

Lee, the bill’s sponsor, told the New York Times she sees it as a step forward in addressing America’s problematic and racist past.

“We think it will be cleansing for this nation, and we think that it will be a step moving America forward to see us debate this question on the floor of the House,” Lee said.

HR 40 hopes to clarify the debate over whether reparations are a good idea

Ideological notions against reparations are still the norm. As HR 40 came up for a committee hearing in 2019, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he opposed reparations because “none of us currently living are responsible” for slavery. He further said landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the election of President Barack Obama were examples of the US dealing with its “original sin of slavery.”

That’s where most Americans seem to be on the issue. Sixty-three percent of Americans oppose reparations, including a whopping 93 percent of Republicans, the Post/ABC poll found. It’s not popular.

But many supporters of reparations, and lawmakers like Lee, have argued that reparations are less about correcting a past wrong, and more about negating the past’s effect on the present. They tie the exclusion of Black people from the GI Bill, and the racist ways the construction of the highway system broke up Black communities, with present-day issues, including the use of cash bail and policing being overwhelmingly concentrated in majority-minority areas. The argument is that by compensating the Black population for a long history of exclusionary government policy, they can gain better housing, educational, and financial footholds to have full access to opportunity.

It’s important to note that HR 40 would not institute reparations — and that even if a commission were to recommend them, the federal government might not act on that recommendation. But its backers see it as a first step in the right direction.

“The centuries-long injustices of slavery and its legacy, fueling the persistence of racial inequality today, remain largely unaccounted for,” said Human Rights Watch advocate Dreisen Heath in a press release. “As states, cities, and other institutions pursue reckonings, Congress should step up to lead the nation in accounting and atoning for the ongoing impact of slavery. The committee vote on H.R. 40 is a crucial step in that direction.”

Some reparations advocates — including Duke University’s William Darity Jr. — have called for HR 40 to be further refined so that it might constitute a larger step toward reparations. Darity told the Washington Post the bill should specify exactly who would be eligible for any possible reparations, and should include the creation of a plan to narrow the racial wealth gap.

“Unless the markup process results in major revision of the bill, it will not propel our nation toward true reparations,” Darity told the Post.

At the moment, Biden has not outlined any further vision for reparations beyond what was in his platform; however, Lee said HR 40 has an ally in the president. After leaders from the Congressional Black Caucus met with Biden Tuesday, Lee told reporters that Biden indicated support for HR 40 and its study on reparations.

“We have heard from not only the president but the White House, and his team, that he is committed to this concept,” Lee said. “We are grateful for that because we are now doing something historically tomorrow that’s never been done.”

Overall, it’s clear that there remains — and will remain — a lot of debate as to whether reparations are a good idea, both in regard to their moral virtue and implementation. HR 40 aims to change that, by arming lawmakers with actionable data and research on the direct causes of historical racial opportunity gaps and the impacts they have on society today.

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