clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

America is having an unprecedented debate about reparations. What comes next?

Congress’s reparations hearing was historic. It also revealed long-standing tensions.

A panel of speakers including retired NFL player Burgess Owens, Quilette columnist Coleman Hughes, writer and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, during a congressional hearing on reparations on June 19, 2019.
A panel of speakers (from left): retired NFL player Burgess Owens, Quilette columnist Coleman Hughes, writer and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, during a congressional hearing on reparations on June 19, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

Recent months have touched off a renewed debate about what exactly is owed to the descendants of enslaved men and women after centuries of bondage and legalized discrimination. On Wednesday morning, that debate entered the halls of Congress as a small panel of academics, activists, and journalists, many of them the descendants of enslaved men and women, testified during a hearing on reparations.

The hearing, conducted by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, held both historical and symbolic significance. The last congressional discussion of reparations was in 2007, one year before the election of the country’s first black president. The most recent hearing was held on Juneteenth, a day commemorating when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were finally notified of their emancipation. As an increasing number of people arrived to witness the hearing — enough that they filled three overflow rooms, according to the New York Times — they stood a short distance away from the US Capitol, a federal symbol built by the enslaved.

The bill discussed, HR 40, would task a commission with studying the continued effects of slavery and racial discrimination and make recommendations about what redress might be needed. The bill is also laden with symbolism, being named after the unfulfilled 154-year-old federal promise of “40 acres and a mule” to recently freed men and women. The bill has languished in the House for decades, first introduced by former Congressman John Conyers in 1989 and reintroduced every year until his retirement in 2017. The bill has since been reintroduced by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee.

“I just simply ask: Why not?” Lee said at the beginning of the hearing. “And why not now?”

It is possible that 2019, which has ushered in a new wave of national attention to reparations, could bring the beginnings of an answer to that question. In recent months, at least 11 presidential candidates have thrown their support behind studying reparations, noting that the federal government greatly benefited from slavery and then allowed policy to entrench inequity over generations. Academics who have studied the historical and economic case for reparations have seen renewed interest in their research. And increased attention to the rhetoric and behaviors of white supremacists have fueled calls for politicians to do more to address acts of racism.

The Wednesday hearing, which included testimony from a panel of speakers including Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, actor and activist Danny Glover, and economist Julianne Malveaux, gave a platform to those who believe that reparations are crucial for black communities that have gone too long without repair. The hearing also called attention to the fact that opposition to reparations remains strong, with some speakers and several Republican members of the committee arguing that to provide anything now would be simply granting an unjustified handout.

It shows that while the fight for reparations has undoubtedly advanced in the more than 150 years since it began, things are far from settled. And even as the historic hearing marks the first step toward possible congressional action on the issue, one question that remains is what effect — if any — Wednesday’s hearing will have on the ongoing national discourse around reparations.

Speakers argued that reparations are about the continued disparity experienced by black Americans

The demand for reparations stretches back more than a century, and was first raised in the months and years immediately following the end of the Civil War. In the decades since, calls for restitution for the descendants of the enslaved have been supported by activists, civil rights groups, and academics, who point to a vast list of racial disparities, including the racial wealth gap, which shows that the median white household is 10 times wealthier than the median black one.

But their steady call for reparations has never been met.

“Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hollow principles of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness to all,” Coates, whose 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations” called newfound mainstream attention to the ways slavery and a subsequent century of unjust policy impacted black people, said on Wednesday. “But America had other things in mind.”

The argument that the effects of slavery and discrimination continue to have an impact was further made by Glover, who shared the story of meeting his great-grandmother Mary Brown, a woman born into slavery. “White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical change to the structure of our society,” he said, adding that reparations “is a moral, democratic, and economic imperative.”

Several of the speakers — including Katrina Browne, a white filmmaker whose ancestors brought more than 12,000 African men and women to the US in chains, and Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, an Episcopal bishop for the diocese of Maryland — noted that there was a moral need for the United States to pursue reparations.

Actor and activist Danny Glover waits to testify at a congressional hearing on reparations on June 19, 2019.
Actor and activist Danny Glover waits to testify at a congressional hearing on reparations on June 19, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

But as the hearing continued, Malveaux, the economist, also said she was frustrated with Congress members’ limited interest in understanding the economic weight of slavery and discrimination. She pointed to the severe impacts slavery had on the ability to build black wealth, noting that the failure of Reconstruction, the intentional destruction of economic hubs like Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, and the exclusion of black people from federal programs like the GI Bill, are closely tied to present-day issues like the use of cash bail that have entrenched economic disparities further.

”When Zip code determines what kind of school that you go to, when Zip code determines what kind of food you eat — these are the vestiges of enslavement that a lot of people don’t want to deal with,” she said. She added that the current wealth gap between black and white households is almost as wide as it was in 1910.

The hearing was a reminder that opposition to reparations remains strong

While the majority of speakers at the hearing were in support of reparations, others were opposed to the topic. These speakers said they acknowledged the harms of slavery but distinguished between that and current issues, saying that the time for reparations has passed and claiming that reparations would be an “insult to many African Americans.”

“Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims,” argued Coleman Hughes, a Columbia undergraduate and Quillette columnist. “So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent.”

Another speaker, retired NFL player Burgess Owens, joined Hughes in arguing that reparations would be an insulting diminishment of the work done by African Americans since slavery.

Their comments, which elicited boos from the audience and disapproval from other panelists, were endorsed by many Republican lawmakers on the House subcommittee. Throughout the hearing, these lawmakers suggested reparations would be an unfair payment forced on those who had nothing to do with slavery.

“Putting aside the injustice of monetary reparations from current taxpayers for the sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago ... the fair distribution of reparations would be nearly impossible once one considers the complexity of the American struggle to abolish slavery,” argued Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson, the committee’s ranking member. Other committee members claimed that reparations should only be paid by Democrats.

It was a political twist on a claim — that reparations are something taken from white Americans and then handed over to African Americans — that several speakers said was misguided. Rather than demanding something from white America, speakers supporting reparations said they were demanding something from America as a whole and the federal government in particular: a recognition of the enduring damages of enslavement and government-sanctioned discrimination, and a concerted effort from the federal government to provide repair to a community that has been repeatedly denied a chance to accumulate wealth and fully participate in a country that gained its riches and power through the coerced labor of the enslaved.

Some Republican lawmakers already have an intense opposition to HR 40, a bill that merely calls for studying reparations and does not include any actual demand for reparations or create a reparations program. One day before the congressional hearing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was against HR 40 and that America has already provided redress for the injustices of slavery and Jim Crow through civil rights legislation and the Civil War.

Those comments led to a sharp rebuke from Coates. “While emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open,” he said. “And that is the thing about Sen. McConnell’s ‘something’: it was 150 years ago and it was right now.”

Coates’s argument is a claim that has been supported by research into reparations, with experts like Duke University’s William Darity arguing that issues like the racial wealth gap are closely linked to slavery and long-standing structural racism, adding that a seriously funded reparations program may be the only way to seriously narrow these gaps.

Will this hearing have any impact?

Now that the hearing has ended, what happens next is somewhat unclear: HR 40 has significant support among some congressional Democrats and presidential contenders, but other lawmakers are expected to vote against the bill if it manages to leave committee.

No matter what happens in the coming months, one thing that is clear is that activists, academics, and other supporters of reparations will continue their push as they have done for decades, calling attention to the issue and building on their moral and economic case for reparations even if the topic fades from public and political attention.

Activists wait to enter a congressional hearing on reparations convened by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties on June 19, 2019.
Activists wait to enter a congressional hearing on reparations convened by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties on June 19, 2019.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

In many ways, it’s a sign of how progress has often worked for black people in America, with advancements in civil rights coming not because the government recognized the urgent moral necessity of change, but because social and political unrest made the issue impossible to ignore. Reparations, like the civil rights movement, may operate in the same way.

But even if its adoption is not immediate or fails to happen in the near future, many of Wednesday’s speakers argued that reparations are necessary and would finally lead to a more complete national story, one that fully acknowledges what America has been, what it is currently, and what it could be in the future.

Coates summed things up by saying that at their core, reparations are a “question of citizenship.”

“In HR-40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism — to say that this nation is both its credits and debits,” he said. “That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings.”