The movement to make the United States pay reparations to black descendants of slaves was given its most significant backing to date on Wednesday, as the House Judiciary Committee approved a proposal to begin studying the issue.
The Committee’s vote does not mean reparations are likely any time soon: their support for a new commission to investigate does not mean legislation to create the commission will make it to the House floor.
Even if it does proceed to a vote, there is no guarantee that it would survive that vote, as the Democrats hold an extremely narrow majority.
There’s even less of a chance it would make it through the Senate, as 10 Republicans would need to sign on to make it filibuster-proof.
However, supporters of reparations were celebrating, with Shelia Jackson Lee, the New York congresswoman who sponsored the bill, describing it as a triumph.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of New York, seen Wednesday, is the primary sponsor of the bill
‘No such bill has ever come this far during Congressional history of the United States,’ she said, following the vote.
The bill, H.R. 40, aims to establish a 13-person commission to study whether the descendants of slaves should receive compensation from the U.S. government.
The same reparations bill was first introduced in the House in 1989, but never received a committee vote.
An estimated 40 million black Americans could receive some sort of payment to the tune of trillions of dollars.
The move comes days after President Joe Biden reiterated his support for the study during a meeting with leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler presides over a markup session on Wednesday that includes H.R. 40, which creates a commission that would study giving reparations to the descendants of slaves
Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee vote was the first time a reparations bill was voted on
‘We did bring up the issue of reparations,’ said Jackson Lee outside the White House on Tuesday, at the conclusion of the meeting.
‘We have heard not only from the president, but the White House and his team, that he is committed to this concept.
‘We are grateful for that,’ she added.
WHO WOULD BE ON THE COMMISSION?
A. Three members shall be appointed by the President.
B. Three members shall be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
C. One member shall be appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate.
D. Six members shall be selected from the major civil society and reparations organizations that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice.
The resolution to study reparations was first introduced by the now late Rep. John Conyers in 1989 and was named after the ’40 acres and a mule’ that freed black Americans had been promised, but the federal government didn’t act on.
Conyers died in October 2019 aged 90, having spent 52 years serving as a representative for an area around Detroit.
In a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the bill in February, witnesses provided the historical context for reparations – pointing out that government had paid them before.
Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, spoke of the reparations given to interned Japanese Americans, and also noted that the commission hearings – which H.R. 40 would green light – helped the healing process in the community.
North Carolina Democratic Rep. Deborah Ross spoke about how her state paid out reparations to those who were forcibly sterilized by the government.
‘I don’t believe that this particular resolution prescribes a way of going forward, but it’s a conversation about what we need to do,’ Ross said.
‘And just as we did in North Carolina, when we passed a bill compensating people for forced sterilization, a terrible, terrible chapter in our history.’
More recently, Evanston, Illinois became the first city in the country to approve a reparations plan to help black resident who were hurt by the municipality’s housing laws.
The plan has a narrow scope and would give $25,000 in grants to black residents or their descendants who lived in the city from 1919 to 1969 and suffered from housing discrimination.
Residents who suffered housing discrimination after 1969 at the hands of the city are also eligible for the money.
The money can be used to help buy a home, pay down a mortgage or for home improvements.
In 2019, Evanston approved a $10 million reparations fund, with the money coming from legal cannabis sales. An initial $400,000 was set aside for the housing reparations.
Republican witnesses at the February hearing argued it could be difficult to figure out a scope of who would benefit.
‘Where would the money from from? Does it come from all the other races except the black taxpayers? Who is black? What percentage of black must you be to receive reparations? Do you go to 23andMe or a DNA test to determine the percentage of blackness?’ asked former National Football League player Herschel Walker, one of the GOP witnesses.