For the first time in a decade, the House held a discussion on reparations for the descendants of slaves in the U.S., a policy that’s gained support from several Democratic presidential hopefuls in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties had a somewhat fiery hearing on H.R. 40, which calls for a commission to “study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans.”
The date of the testimony, June 19, coincides with Juneteenth, a holiday that recognizes the freeing of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865 -- two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas., introduced the bill earlier this year and pushed for today’s hearing, which included testimony from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, actor Danny Glover and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of “The Case for Reparations,” which appeared on the cover of the The Atlantic in 2014 (and, according to The Associated Press, brought reparations back to the forefront of the national discourse).
“Despite much progress over the centuries, this hearing is yet another important step in the long and heroic struggle of African Americans to secure reparations for the damages inflicted by enslavement and post-emancipation exclusionary policies,” Glover said in his prepared remarks.
The purpose of reparations is to address racial inequality that’s lingered in the country; for instance, a study by the Pew Research Center in 2017 found that the median income of white households is $171,000 -- 10 times that of black households ($17,100).
Although critics argue that reparations are impractical to calculate how to fairly distribute, a new paper published in the Social Science Quarterly estimated it could cost between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion. The author of the paper calculated that figure based on the number of hours all slaves worked in the U.S. from when the country was officially established in 1776.
The historic hearing sparked fierce debate, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled that no reparations bill will pass while Republicans control the Senate.
“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,” McConnell told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.
Coates, in his prepared testimony, slammed the Kentucky Republican, laying out a fierce rebuttal to McConnell’s statement by describing how black people in the U.S. continue to suffer from the impacts of slavery. McConnell, he said, was alive during periods of federal discrimination policies that are the direct legacies of slavery, including poll taxes and redlining, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965.
“Many of us would love to be taxed for things we are solely and individually responsible for,” he said. “But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise.”
Of course, not everyone testifying was in favor of reparations.
Coleman Hughes, a columnist at Quilette, said he did not support reparations for all descendants of slaves, stressing that he believes only people who lived under Jim Crow should be compensated.
"People who are owed for slavery are no longer here," he said.