reparations debate
April 15, 2021

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. Peter Weber

March 16, 2021

The Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests that counts Pope Francis among its members, have pledged to raise at least $100 million to atone for the order's ownership and sale of enslaved Black people in the early days of the American republic, The New York Times reported Monday. Historians and Catholic officials said it is one of the largest efforts by an institution to atone for participating in slavery.

The money will be paid out through a new foundation, the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, created through three years of discussions between Jesuit leaders and a group representing the descendants of 272 slaves the order sold to a Louisiana plantation in 1838 to save Georgetown College, now Georgetown University, the first Catholic institution of higher learning in the U.S. The sale raised $115,000, or about $3.3 million in today's dollars. Genealogists at the Georgetown Memory Project have identified about 5,000 living descendants of people enslaved by the Jesuits.

The new foundation is headed by one of the descendants, Joseph Stewart, and its governing board includes representatives from Georgetown and other institutions with roots in slavery. The Jesuits have already contributed $15 million and plan to raise the other $85 million over the next five years. About half the annual budget will go toward grants for organizations engaging in racial reconciliation, a quarter will fund educational grants and scholarships for descendants, and some of the money will go directly toward supporting the needs of old and infirm descendants, the Times reports.

Stewart wrote the Jesuit leadership in Rome in May 2017, calling for negotiations over the newly resurfaced Georgetown slave sale. The Jesuit superior general, Rev. Arturo Sosa, wrote back a month later, urging Stewart's group and American Jesuits to talk and describing the order's slaveholding past as "a sin against God and a betrayal of the human dignity of your ancestors." In August 2017, Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, flew to Michigan to meet with the Stewarts and lay the groundwork for the new foundation.

"This is an opportunity for Jesuits to begin a very serious process of truth and reconciliation," Fr. Kesicki said in a statement. "Our shameful history of Jesuit slaveholding in the United States has been taken off the dusty shelf, and it can never be put back." Peter Weber

June 18, 2019

Don't count Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) among those who support reparations.

McConnell was asked about the matter at his weekly news conference on Tuesday, responding that he doesn't think "reparations are a good idea." Among McConnell's reasons were the fact that slavery ended over 150 years ago, no one alive was responsible for it, and it would be too difficult to figure out whom to compensate. He added that the U.S. has already made several efforts to reconcile with its "original sin," including fighting the Civil War, passing civil rights legislation, and electing former President Barack Obama.

A Democratic-led House subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing on reparations on Wednesday. Several Democratic presidential candidates have voiced support for reparations. Tim O'Donnell

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