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Congressional hearing could help move needle on support for reparations

The topic of reparations for slavery is headed to Capitol Hill for its first hearing in more than a decade, with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Danny Glover, above, set to testify. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

While interest in reparations for the descendants of slaves has dropped among presidential candidates, it is likely to reemerge as a subject of conversation as Congress examines the topic for the first time in more than a decade. But while it is capturing attention because of rising concerns about the wealth gap between white and black Americans, convincing more Americans to support reparations remains an uphill climb.

The Associated Press’s Errin Haines Whack reported that the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will hold a hearing Wednesday “to examine, through open and constructive discourse, the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.”

The hearing on June 19 will coincide with Juneteenth, a day commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in America and a day which has long been recognized in many African American communities.

The end of slavery and its economic implications also will be highlighted as candidates prepare to discuss related topics Saturday at a presidential forum sponsored by the Black Economic Alliance.

In an op-ed published Tuesday in the Charleston Chronicle in South Carolina, Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg wrote about Juneteenth and the economic challenges black Americans have faced in subsequent years. He wrote:

"It is a fundamentally American occasion — a celebration of freedom, but also an acknowledgement of freedom delayed. As we observe this day, we must be honest that the hopes stirred almost 160 years ago have still not been fully realized.
Black Americans are not yet fully free when Black unemployment is still almost twice the national average, when the average Black eighth grader reads at a level far below their white peers, and when Black mothers are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. We lack true freedom when so many schools are almost as segregated as they were before Brown v. Board of Education. And, we cannot have freedom when identical resumes with stereotypically white or Black names lead to wildly different chances of being hired. These persistent inequalities have compounded over hundreds of years. They hold back our economy and corrode the American soul."

The details of these issues are among the many that will be referenced during the congressional hearing when actor Danny Glover and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates make their cases before lawmakers. And the stances that presidential candidates have made on reparations will likely resurface as black voters look for a candidate who will prioritize their quest for income equality.

Earlier this month, the New Yorker asked Coates about presidential candidates’ support for reparations:

“What do you make of that? Is it symbolic, or is it lip service, or is it just a way to secure the black vote? Or is it something much more serious than all that?”

“It’s probably in some measure all four of those things,” Coates replied. “It certainly is symbolic. Supporting a commission is not reparations in and of itself. It’s certainly lip service, from at least some of the candidates. I’m actually less sure about [this], in terms of the black vote — it may ultimately be true that this is something that folks rally around, but that’s never been my sense.”

Coates has good reason to doubt, considering the data. According to a 2016 Marist poll, more than 7 in 10 — 72 percent — American adults argue that the United States should not compensate African Americans for the harm caused by slavery and other forms of racial discrimination. About a third of African Americans oppose giving monetary compensation to descendants of slaves.

But these numbers could change as future generations learn more about the correlation between America’s wealth and the slave labor of black people. And keeping the issue before lawmakers and individuals hoping to be the most powerful person in the country might be the next step in moving toward that change.