An interior wall at the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Ala. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Be honest. When you hear the word “reparations” in relation to compensation to African Americans for the sin of slavery, you think of a check from the U.S. Treasury, one in the amount of “priceless” for more than two centuries of free and forced labor followed by the ongoing impacts and persistence of racism, discrimination and white supremacy. And then you wonder where that money is going to come from and who’s going to get it.

My colleague Charles Lane tackles the latter question in a sobering column that asks a question of its own that I had not yet considered: Would reparations be constitutional? “Maybe not” is his response. “Any financial benefits awarded to African Americans in compensation for historical discrimination would collide with well-established Supreme Court precedents,” Lane writes before going on to explain. In the end, given Supreme Court precedents, it could boil down to an individual being able to show that they personally and directly suffered or were injured by slavery. Reaching that point requires getting through a hornet’s nest inside a Pandora’s box wedged into the smallest of the Matryoshka dolls.

Though focusing on the compensation aspect of reparations is understandable, it misses a larger discussion this nation has yet to have. I’ve written this before so forgive the repetition. A national conversation about reparations is more nuanced than promising black folks a check. The path set forth by H.R. 40, which had a historic hearing on June 19, is the one the nation needs to follow. The preamble of the bill sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) spells it all out.

To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and 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.

Two phrases stand out for me. “Appropriate remedies” is the golf umbrella of legislative terms. Just about anything can fit under it. Thus, a “proposal for reparations” with its myriad facets would be among those remedies. And it would force us to broaden or outright change the definition of what reparations are. All would be up for discussion, from providing direct cash payments to figuring out how to destroy the school-to-prison pipeline to instituting real efforts to break racism’s vice grip on our political and cultural life. All remedies should be considered and debated.

What doesn’t need to be debated, but is an absolute must, is “a national apology.” Yes, the bill language says “consider a national apology,” which leaves the possibility for none. But to walk down the path of H.R. 40 with all the monstrous evidence already strewn about it would be a disgrace. We must face our history.

“We need to be honest about not just who we are, but who we have been for generations and generations in this nation,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) reminded in his speech last week in response to the massacre in El Paso. “Bigotry was written into our founding documents. Native Americans in our Declaration of Independence were referred to as ‘savages.’ In our Constitution, black people are fractions of human beings.”

“White supremacy has always been a problem in our American story — if not always at the surface, then lurking not so far beneath it. We have seen it from slave masters who stole and pillaged black bodies for profit to demagogues throughout generations who stoked racist and anti-immigrant hatred, often for votes, and then enshrined their bigotry into/our laws,” Booker continued. And then he articulated why, for me, a formal apology from the United States government for slavery with all the facts and truth that make it unavoidable is an absolute necessity. “Without truth,” he said, “there can be no reconciliation.”

At bottom, I bet you an apology is what African Americans want most. An acknowledgment of the pain and suffering, an expression of sorrow for the mistreatment and degradation, and an “I’m sorry” for the abasement of our ancestors and the disrespect (still) endured by their descendants. No check of any amount could substitute the priceless psychological benefit of a simple and sincere apology. Without one, our nation will never escape this endless loop of tragedy. We will never reconcile. We will never move forward.

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Read more:

Ken Woodley: Virginia is proof that reparations for slavery can work

Megan McArdle: Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are wrong. We shouldn’t pay reparations for slavery.

Jonathan Capehart: How Ta-Nehisi Coates turned reparations from a punchline into a policy objective

Letter to the Editor: We need reparations to begin making amends