The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to advance legislation that would set up a committee to study the idea of paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved Black people in America. The party-line 25-17 vote will send the legislation to the full House for the first time since the late Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) first introduced it in 1989. Conyers kept introducing the bill every year until his retirement in 2017, after which its current sponsor, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), took over.
The bill, HR 40 — after the broken post-Civil War promise to give former enslave people 40 acres and a mule — would create a 13-member commission to study the history of slavery and subsequent discrimination against Black Americans, then recommend possible remedies to address the lasting impact of those racial injustices.
"The goal of this historical commission and its investigation is to bring American society to the new reckoning with how our past affects the current conditions of African-Americans," said Jackson Lee. "Reparations are ultimately about respect and reconciliation — and the hope that one day, all Americans can walk together toward a more just future."
Republicans argued that slavery ended in 1865 and reparations are unjust because, as Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) phrased it, "paying reparations would amount to taking money from people who never owned slaves to compensate those who were never enslaved." Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), the only Black Republican on the panel, argued that "reparation is divisive, it speaks to the fact that we are a hapless, helpless race and never did anything but wait for white people to show up and help us, and it's a falsehood."
The typical white U.S. households has 10 times the net worth of a Black household, Black Americans are less likely than other racial groups to own a home, and the Black poverty rate is twice the rate for white Americans. Much of that is due to decades of policies that hindered Black homeownership and other accumulation of generational wealth. By one estimate, the cost of compensating the descendants of enslaved Black people could be up to $12 trillion, USA Today reports.
If passed by the full House, HR 40 faces long odds overcoming a GOP filibuster in the Senate, where Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has introduced a companion bill.