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The Washington Post

Supporters say they have the votes in the House to pass a reparations bill after years of lobbying

The bill would create a commission on reparations for Black Americans modeled on a process from history

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), right, speaks at a hearing about reparations in 2019. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
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More than three decades after it was first introduced, a House bill that would create a commission to study reparations for Black Americans has the votes to pass, its key champions say.

That broad support, they contend, shows that the idea of reparations has gone from the fringes to the mainstream of American politics.

“This has been a 30-plus year journey,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). “We had to take a different approach. We had to go one by one to members explaining this does not generate a check.”

The commission would hold hearings with testimony from those who support and oppose the idea. Jackson Lee said the country would end up better from the process. “Reparations is about repair and when you repair the damage that has been done, you do so much to move a society forward. This commission can be a healing process. Telling the truth can heal America,” she said.

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While supporters are confident they have the votes to gain approval in the House, they are less optimistic about the bill’s fate in the Senate. Instead, they intend to push President Biden to sign an executive order that would create the commission.

The bill, H.R. 40, calls for a lengthy study of reparations. Supporters say they need Biden to act now so his administration can implement the commission’s recommendations before the end of his term. The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the legislation or whether Biden would consider an executive order.

During the 2020 Democratic primary election, The Washington Post asked candidates if they thought the federal government should pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people. Nearly all of the leading contenders, including Biden, said that they supported a comprehensive study of the issue.

Their answers represented a significant shift compared with President Barack Obama’s rejection of the idea during his 2008 campaign. Revisiting the issue in an interview last year, Obama said that reparations are “justified” but the “politics of White resistance and resentment” made the issue a “nonstarter” during his presidency.

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Supporters say the conversations that started after George Floyd’s murder changed the political calculus of reparations. Floyd’s death in May 2020 sparked worldwide protests and a national reckoning on race and the criminal justice system. For many, watching the viral video of Floyd crying for his mother while struggling to breathe pinned beneath the knee of a White Minneapolis police officer was proof of what Black Americans have said for years that their lives aren’t valued.

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“I started fighting for reparations at a time when it didn’t pass the laugh test, when I spent most of my time just trying to get people in power just to utter the word reparations,” said Nkechi Taifa, director of the Reparation Education Project.

“That changed with George Floyd. He was like the Emmett Till of the 21st century. It was something about his murder that captured the attention of the world just like Emmett Till’s murder did 70 years ago. It started a new movement that led to this mainstream conversation about reparations. But people need to know this conversation didn’t just pop up overnight on the Internet, people have been fighting for reparations for a long time,” she said.

This push for a federal commission comes as cities and localities across the country undertake their own efforts to account for their racist pasts. In September 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a law that created a task force to study and recommend reparations for Black Californians. In March, the panel will take a final vote on the question of who should be eligible for those reparations.

With the vote, the panel hopes to set a historic precedent for reparations eligibility for other states and the federal government. Thus far, the California effort represents the largest Black reparations project in the nation’s history, but supporters say they expect similar efforts soon in other Democratic strongholds such as New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

The federal legislation was first introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in 1989. The “40” in H.R. 40 is a reference to an order signed in the waning days of the Civil War aimed at helping newly freed Black people survive and make a fresh start after 200 years in bondage. The government would take land that was confiscated from Confederates and redistribute it, with each Black family receiving 40 acres. However, after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the order was rescinded and the land was returned to White Confederates.

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Conyers proposed the legislation in the wake of President Ronald Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned by the U.S. government during World War II.

Conyers went on to introduce the bill 20 times, once during every legislative session from 1989 to 2017. After Conyers resigned from Congress in 2017 in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, Jackson Lee became the bill’s primary champion. After 30 years on Capitol Hill, the bill made it out of committee for the first time last April.

It was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in a 25-to-17 vote along party lines. Earlier this month, nearly every major civil rights organization and a host of celebrities, including Mark Ruffalo and Danny Glover, signed a letter urging leaders in Congress to bring H.R. 40 to the floor for a vote.

Jackson Lee said she and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who introduced the bill in the Senate, have secured 260 sponsors and “yes” votes for the measure across both chambers of Congress, though none from any Republicans.

“This groundswell of support sends a clear message to President Biden,” said Kennis Henry of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations. “We are ready for the opportunity to have this racial reckoning, and if not now, when?” she said.

“We have seen other groups get reparations, from the Japanese to the families of 9/11 victims. In those cases and others, our government said we must do something,” Henry said. “So why is this country unwilling to discuss reparations for people of African descent? The only difference between those who have gotten reparations and those who have not gotten compensation is the color of my skin,” she said.

The commission, which would receive $12 million in funding, would have 13 members. The president and House speaker would each appoint three members, and the Senate president pro tempore would appoint a single member. The other six seats would be filled with representatives from civil rights organizations that have championed the cause of reparations.

Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, a campaign director at Color of Change, hopes the work of panel could help undo what she calls the misinformation from the movement against critical race theory. “At the heart of what the critical race theory fight is about is the refusal to educate young people and by proxy their families about the harm America has done to Black people,” she said.

“You have people asking, ‘Why should a Black person today receive reparations, none of you experienced slavery?’ And this is why I think H.R. 40 is so important because it’s going to explain and show the ways that slavery, the Jim Crow era and Reconstruction materially impacted Black communities and their legacies.”

Reparations could also be a step toward closing the racial wealth gap created in part by Black families historically not having land and property to pass on to their descendants due to slavery and later by racist government policies, supporters say.

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“There are so many White families who may not be wealthy, but they have a home that they inherited from their grandparents who bought the home with federal funds when they returned from World War II,” Ogunnaike said.

“So few Black people have that ability, and that’s a direct harm at the hands of the federal government. It’s time for them to repair it. Black organizers and the Black movement have done an incredible job of making this a centerpiece of conversation. Now we need to figure out the how of how we move people to action,” she added.

A 2021 Washington Post poll found that 65 percent of Americans opposed paying cash reparations to the descendants of enslaved Black people. While 46 percent of Democrats favored the idea, 92 percent of Republicans opposed it. Two-thirds of Black respondents supported the idea, but only 18 percent of White respondents did.

However, while a majority still oppose reparations, the ranks of those who support the idea is up markedly from past surveys. A 1999 ABC News poll found that just 19 percent of Americans approved of reparations for Black Americans. Supporters of H.R. 40. said they expect support for reparations to increase with a federal commission and its public findings.

“The idea of H.R. 40 is to respond to those who say, ‘My family didn’t have enslaved people, it’s not my fault,’” Jackson Lee said. “What I say to them is be very assured, we will not be knocking on individual White people’s doors demanding money for African Americans. But for slavery, for the hanging of thousands of Black people, for Jim Crow laws, for the horrible segregation laws of the 20th century, for the segregation of the United States military, for redlining, your government has a responsibility because it was all government-sanctioned. Your government has a debt.”

Ron Daniels, president of the National African American Reparations Commission, said, “I firmly believe if White Americans knew better, they’d do better.”