Reparations Hearing Tests Whether Congress Can Confront History

Republicans say it's time to move on from the "original sin" of slavery, even though its ill effects have lingered.

WASHINGTON — As a House committee prepared to hold a hearing on reparations for African Americans on Wednesday, the top Republican on Capitol Hill demonstrated why the hearing might be a good idea.

“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,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday.

“We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation,” McConnell went on. “We’ve elected an African American president.”

McConnell spoke as if the abolition of slavery in 1865 resulted in an ongoing series of good things for African Americans, culminating in the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. But that’s not what happened.

Freed slaves and their descendants were subjected to re-enslavement, terrorism and disenfranchisement. In the 20th century, they were initially excluded from programs such as Social Security retirement insurance and welfare. Federal policy segregated schools and neighborhoods, and unequal treatment by mortgage lenders has continued right through to today.

The disparate treatment has resulted in dramatically worse economic circumstances for African Americans, including less household wealth and a consistently higher unemployment rate that cannot be explained away by differences in education or occupation.

The hearing this week is not even about whether the U.S. ought to pay reparations. It’s about whether to pass a bill that would create a commission to study how reparations could be paid. Appointing a commission instead of taking decisive action is one of the most cautious things lawmakers can do. (And they do it often, having set up more than 100 commissions over the past three decades.)

McConnell also said it would be “pretty hard to figure out who to compensate” ― but that’s another reason for an officially sanctioned expert panel to study the problem and suggest solutions.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing is on H.R. 40, a bill that former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced in every Congress for years. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced the current version.

The bill would task the commission with studying U.S. slavery itself, as well as subsequent “laws that discriminated against formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who were deemed United States citizens from 1868 to the present,” and what form of compensation “should be awarded, through what instrumentalities and who should be eligible for such compensation.”

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), said that while slavery was horrific, it had been perpetrated by a “small subset of Americans from many generations ago,” and that many of today’s white Americans descended from immigrants who arrived in the U.S. after abolition. He also said reparations would be unconstitutional and overly divisive.

“Many people of good conscious believe they will distract from the many persistent causes of racial disparities,” Johnson said.

He added that passing the resolution to study reparations would be contrary to ideals of self-reliance that Johnson said had been articulated by black leaders in the past.

“Would it propagate a worldview that says external forces from a century and a-half ago are directing the fate of black Americans today?” Johnson said. “It’s an honest question that some people ask.”

One of the committee’s witnesses, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates ― whose 2014 essay on reparations drew much wider attention to H.R. 40 ― said McConnell’s claim that nobody currently alive has had anything to do with slavery “proffers a strange theory of governance that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations.”

Coates noted that the U.S. still paid a Civil War veteran’s pension well into the 21st century, and that the U.S. still honors treaties signed by no currently living person. And he noted that McConnell himself was alive for many of the sorts of events that the reparations commission would evaluate.

“Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them,” Coates said.

This story has been updated to included quotes from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Please check back for more updates.

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