Congress holds reparations for slavery hearing for first time since BLM protests, Dems seek 'national apology'

Texas Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee was determined to make a difference with the bill which has been introduced in every legislative session since 1989

                            Congress holds reparations for slavery hearing for first time since BLM protests, Dems seek 'national apology'
The bill has been introduced in every legislative session since 1989 (Getty Images)

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that rocked the US in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd saw a deep polarization in the country’s political life with the Republicans and Democrats failing to agree over the social eruption. Now, the BLM movement is set to be reignited after the Congress on Wednesday, February 17, held its first hearing on reparations for slavery since Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last May.

Members of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a virtual meeting on Zoom to discuss H.R. 40, which looks to “establish 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, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes”.


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A man holds a Black Lives Matter sign as a police car burns during a protest on May 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Getty Images)

ABC News reported: “After the Civil War, formerly enslaved families were promised by Union leadership 40 acres and a mule. The offer was never fulfilled, yet a reminder to the centuries-old promise that has remained in Congress for decades is H.R. 40, the 'Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act'.”

On Tuesday, February 16, Texas Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, the lead sponsor of H.R. 40, told ABC News that the subcommittee hearing would “not be a hearing of anger and anguish, it will be a factual hearing, the witnesses come with facts, United Nations will be there and indicate that reparations is an international concept of healing, repairing and restoring". The bill has been introduced in every legislative session since 1989 and almost two years since the last hearing on H.R. 40, the bill and the idea of reparations came under a new spotlight during the House Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has openly announced her support for reparations since the last time a hearing was held on H.R.40 in 2019. According to Lee, the bill has gained the support of 170 members of the Congress besides 300 organizations, including the US Conference of Mayors, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and American Civil Liberties Union. Historically, however, the bill has not been able to make much progress. In three decades since its introduction, H.R. 40 has not yet reached the House floor for a vote. 

Those backing the bill are determined to make a difference this time. “We’re determined to take this through markup, which is a procedural process that we utilize in Congress as you all know, and then to the floor, and then we want to get into the United States Senate,” Lee was quoted by ABC News as saying. The bill also faced its share of criticism. Utah Republican Representative Burgess Owens testified against the bill despite the fact that his great-grandfather was a slave. According to him, reparations are not the way to right the wrong.   

Utah GOP Representative Burgess Owens addresses the virtual convention on August 26, 2020 (Getty Images)

Lee, 71, responded to Owens saying the bill is an effort “to study, but it is also to develop reparation proposals". "Now we come from a community, a race of people that have been known as overcomers. We shall overcome, and we have overcome. Mr Owens has eloquently spoken of the overcomers, we're successful. We believe in determination. And we believe in overcoming the many bad balls that we have been thrown. We’ve caught them. And we’ve kept on going.”

The H.R. 40 has to be passed through the House Judiciary Committee and if it is passed there, the lower chamber can start debating over it. 

What’s President Joe Biden’s stand on the issue?

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden backed the study of reparations but did not say whether he would back the bill on the same. “We’ll see what happens through the legislative process,” she said. 

Also when asked whether Biden was in favor of an executive order on the study of reparations, Psaki said it all depended on the president. “It would be up to him, he has executive order authority, he would certainly support a study, and we’ll see where Congress moves on that issue,” she said, adding that Biden had issued many orders on racial inequality.

Critics, however, said that pursuing H.R. 40 when the Covid-19 relief package was still being debated was not right. Lee, a member of the House Budget Committee, did not find any problem with that, saying she would work on both at the same time. Calling H.R. 40 an “international legal concept”, the veteran lawmaker said: “It deals with restorative and repair, which is needed in this nation. I think that in 2021. We want to isolate White supremacy. White racism, domestic terrorism, we want to look at each other as our fellow brothers and sisters, and as have been said to the ages, our fellow Americans, I want H.R. 40 to be in the minds and hearts about fellow Americans, pass it and quickly get it signed by the President of the United States.”

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