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Where Mitch McConnell’s rationale for not exploring reparations falls short

Asked if he believed in reparations for slavery, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said June 18, "No one currently alive was responsible for that." (Video: The Washington Post)

Congress is examining the topic of reparations for the descendants of slaves for the first time in more than a decade Wednesday. But while the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties is interested enough to consider the topic, it will be a challenge getting support for further study from the Republican-led Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday he opposes reparations for the descendants of slaves, listing the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the election of President Barack Obama as evidence that America is already well on the path to repairing the harm caused by slavery.

He also painted the issue as just too tricky for Congress to untangle.

“I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for that — first of all, it’d be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate,” McConnell said. He added that waves of immigrants since the era of slavery have also faced discrimination.

There is actually a wealth of literature from scholars and activists that Congress could draw from to divine policy solutions to repair the relationship between the U.S. government and black families. The hearing Wednesday is focused on a House bill that, in part, would study who exactly would receive reparations and what those reparations would look like.

The country’s black population has become more diverse in recent decades and includes black people who are not the descendants of those enslaved in the United States. Given that, one prominent theory that would answer McConnell’s question comes from Duke University economist William A. Darity Jr., a leading scholar on reparations.

The professor suggested that having at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States, as well as identifying as African American on a legal document for at least a decade, should be a standard before any reparation is approved. Darity’s theory is that such documentation would help prevent people from changing their racial identity to African American to take advantage of any possible reparations.

The two-part qualification means, for example, that Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the only African American woman running for president, would not qualify. (Her mother immigrated from India, and her father is a descendant of black people enslaved in Jamaica.) Harris has expressed interest in studying support for reparations.

Darity recently spoke on C-SPAN about what he thinks reparations would accomplish.

Duke University professor William Darity outlined the three components of reparations on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” on June 19. (Video: C-SPAN)

“Reparations is a program of compensation to individuals or communities that have been subjected to grievous injustices,” he said. “From my perspective, reparations has three objectives. The first is acknowledgment of the injustices on the part of the perpetrators. Second is redress, which is restitution for the effects of the injustices. Third is closure, which is mutual recognition on the part of the victimized community as well as the perpetrators that the debt has been paid.”

The debate over reparations dates back decades and fills volumes. Fifty years ago, civil rights activist James Forman, a past foreign minister for the Black Panther Party, demanded in his “Black Manifesto” that half a billion dollars be paid to African Americans.

McConnell is certainly in line with most in his party in opposing reparations, and it would have been more surprising to hear him support exploring the issue than it was hearing the answer he gave. Of all the rationales for not supporting reparations, describing them as too complicated to explore is among the flimsiest.