The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Cori Bush introduces resolution on reparations for Black Americans

The legislation comes after years of frustration among reparations advocates that Democratic lawmakers haven’t taken action on the issue at the federal level

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) speaks to supporters during a march for voting rights at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 2021. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) introduced a resolution Wednesday to jump-start a long-stalled push for a federal reparations program for Black Americans.

“The United States has a moral and legal obligation to provide reparations for the enslavement of Africans and its lasting harm on the lives of millions of Black people in the United States,” according to a draft of the resolution provided to The Washington Post. It also calls for $14 trillion for Black Americans to close the racial wealth gap that some reparations advocates say is the direct result of racist government policies.

“The only way we get closer to [reparations] is if we start putting forward those bills that speak to it and are very clear about what reparations could look like,” Bush said in an interview.

Bush’s bill follows years of frustration among reparations advocates who watched similar legislation introduced every session since 1989, first by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and then by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), that failed to gain traction. In 2022, backers of that legislation, H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations for Black Americans, claimed to have enough votes to pass the long-stalled bill in the House. But it was not brought up for a vote.

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The political path forward for Bush’s resolution also remains murky. During the 2020 Democratic primary election, The 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 Joe Biden, said that they supported a comprehensive study of the issue.

While public opinion polls have shown that the number of Americans who support reparations for Black Americans has grown significantly over the last 20 years, the idea remains broadly unpopular.

Opponents of reparation argue that the harms caused by slavery and Jim Crow laws are in the distant past and that it’s unfair to make citizens who have no family ties to slavery or were not involved in racist government policies pay for the misdeeds of others.

A 2021 Post poll found just 28 percent of Americans supported reparations, while 65 percent 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.

“We squandered the moment during the summer of 2020 when demands were on the table including reparations,” said Dreisen Heath, a reparations advocate, referring to the racial reckoning following the 2020 death of George Floyd. “Three years later, people are still dying, circumstances, economically and politically, have not changed, and we’re in economic conditions eerily similar to where we were when historic civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s.”

Bush’s legislation could put new pressure on lawmakers, particularly Democrats, to act, reparations advocates say. It could also help unite the fractious reparations coalition, which is pursuing disparate efforts in more than a dozen states and cities, they say.

“There’s a lot of good stuff in here,” said William Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University, whose research informed the $14 trillion figure cited in Bush’s resolution. “It’s not perfect, but I see this is a potential positive for the movement if even just from the conversations it could bring to Congress.”

Bush’s bill comes just days after California’s reparations task force approved recommendations that, at the top end, could lead Black residents older than 50 years old to receive more than $1 million each. The total cost of the panel’s proposals, which would need to be approved by the state legislature, would reach hundreds of billions.

What to know about California’s reparations proposal for Black Americans

Meanwhile similar task forces are being considered in a number of Democratic-leaning states including New York and Illinois, and cities such as Evanston, Ill., and Providence, R.I., have established programs at the municipal level.

The path forward for reparations is educating the public about the history and scale of state-sponsored discrimination against Black Americans, said Bush, who was elected in 2020 after she gained national attention for her work as a Black Lives Matter organizer in and around Ferguson, Mo. The resolution includes a detailed page after page recounting of federal policies that discriminated against Black Americans since the founding of the nation.

“If they won’t teach it in the schools, we can teach it from the floor of the U.S. House, where over 1,800 members of Congress have owned enslaved Africans,” she said. “The way we get America ready for reparations is we keep putting it in America’s face. When America does not have to face its atrocities then it can hide and push it to the side.”