On Wednesday, Democrats leading the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on H.R. 40, a bill that has been introduced routinely over the past 30 years to authorize a study on potential reparations for Black Americans impacted by slavery. The hearing, titled “Exploring the Pathway to Reparative Justice in America,” was timely, as its fundamental question about the value of Black life in America is more fraught now than during any period in modern history.
Last month, violent rioters ― several of them pictured with Confederate flags and others who erected a gallows on the National Mall ― carried out a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of Electoral College votes, a number of which hinged on voters in predominantly Black districts. Days after the Senate voted to acquit former President Donald Trump for his role in inciting that violence, the House’s hearing on reparations for Black American suffering felt like a rebuttal.
H.R. 40 was introduced by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), who became the bill’s sponsor after the late Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) resigned in 2017. The bill authorizes Congress to establish a commission that “shall examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.” More than 170 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors.
Rep. Jackson Lee, who has supported H.R. 40 in the past, said the Jan. 6 insurrection proves America still needs to reckon with its oppressive past. The rioters who stormed the Capitol “brandished symbols of division and intolerance that echo back to the darkest periods of our nation’s history,” she said. “Clearly, we require a reckoning to restore national balance and unity.”
“This moment of national reckoning comes at a time when our nation must find constructive ways to confront the rising tide of racial and ethnic division,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler said. “On January 6, we saw the ugly confluence of such divisions as white nationalist groups appeared to be among those playing a central role in the violent assault on the United States Capitol.”
Nadler said reparations are about “respect and reconciliation.”
During the hearing, Democrats and their witnesses clarified that H.R. 40 doesn’t specify the particular form reparations for African Americans would take. Republican witnesses ― including Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, conservative pundit Larry Elder and former running back Herschel Walker ― dismissed the bill by either rejecting the need for reparations entirely or rejecting the premise of direct compensatory payments. Elder and Walker are popular figures in conservative media who have gained prominence for criticizing antiracist activists.
Owens, who said his great-great-grandfather arrived in the U.S. “in the belly of a slave ship,” said “reparations is not the way to right our country’s wrong.”
“It is impractical and a non-starter for the United States government to pay reparations,” Rep. Owens claimed. “It is also unfair and heartless to give Black Americans the hope that this is a reality.”
In several cases, witnesses for House Democrats rebutted Republicans’ argument by describing historical instances when the U.S. and governments around the world paid reparations to oppressed ethnic groups.
One of them, Kathy Masaoka, co-chairs a California-based advocacy group that seeks reparative justice for Japanese Americans harmed by the U.S. government’s racist forced removal and incarceration of their families during World War II.
Her organization, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (“Nikkei” is a word referring to people of Japanese ancestry), helped the successful push for Japanese American reparations in 1988. With the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, Congress authorized $20,000 for the surviving victims of incarceration, and the United States formally acknowledged “a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry by the evacuation, relocation, and internment of civilians during World War II.”
Masaoka said her organization supports H.R. 40 and reparations for African Americans because “One: It is the right thing to do. Two: It is long overdue. And three: Because we know it is possible,” she said.
California Secretary of State Shirley Weber also joined as a witness in support of H.R. 40, arguing that her state is modeling a way for governments to investigate and offer reparative justice to African Americans harmed by slavery.
Weber, the first African American secretary of state in California history, touted Assembly Bill 3121, a California law authorizing a state task force to “study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.”
Weber said the California bill doesn’t excuse the federal government from assessing its role in racist oppression, but she said the state’s approach to reparations should take hold across the country.
In California, “we need not ask whether or not slavery has had an impact, but instead illuminate the extent to which it has had an impact,” she said.