The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black writers, activists, scholars testify before House panel on the role of reparations

The House held a hearing to discuss a bill that would create a commission to study the legacy of slavery. (Video: REF:Luis Velarde, REF:colvinr2/The Washington Post)

Prominent African American writers, activists and scholars on Wednesday addressed a House panel as lawmakers took their first step in a decade toward debating the role of reparations in correcting what many called “the original sin.”

The hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties was set to coincide with the observance of Juneteenth, a day commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in the United States.

It also came as the Democratic-led House is pressing forward with H.R. 40, a measure that would create a national commission to study the legacy of slavery and make proposals on reparations to African Americans.

But much of the debate centered on remarks made by the leader of the other chamber, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said Tuesday that the country had addressed its historic racial injustices in part through the election of President Barack Obama.

“There’s a tremendous amount of ignorance in that statement,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is running for president, said in an interview with SiriusXM ahead of the hearing.

McConnell said Tuesday that he opposes reparations in part because “none of us currently living are responsible” for slavery.

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates responded at Wednesday’s hearing by walking through the social and political environment that grew out of slavery, a system that he called a “relentless campaign of terror — a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”

“Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them,” Coates said. “He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.”

The hearing also included testimony from actor Danny Glover, documentary film producer and director Katrina Browne, writer Coleman Hughes and former National Football League player Burgess Owens, among others.

The House and Senate issued separate apologies for slavery about a decade ago, with the Senate acting in 2009 and the House in 2008.

An April Fox News poll asked Americans whether they favor or oppose “paying cash reparations to descendants of slaves.” A 60 percent majority was opposed while 34 percent favored paying reparations. Fifty-four percent of Democrats approved of paying reparations, while a majority of Republicans — 81 percent — opposed the idea.

McConnell says he’s against reparations for slavery: ‘It would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate’

Booker on Wednesday called on the country to engage in an active discussion about slavery and its implication in current-day injustices, including disparities in education and the violence that plagues many black communities.

“I look at communities like mine, and you can literally see how communities were designed to be segregated, designed based on enforcing institutional racism,” he said.

Hughes, a columnist for the online magazine Quillette, was among those testifying against the legislation. Born in what he called a “privileged suburb,” Hughes said that a federal payment would be the equivalent of the government calling him a victim — bestowing the label without his consent.

“You might call that justice. I call it justice for the dead at the price of justice for the living,” he said.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday that the full House would vote on H.R. 40 if it clears the House Judiciary Committee.

In one of the hearing’s emotional moments, Glover paused while speaking about his ancestors.

“I sit here as a great-grandson of a former slave freed by the Emancipation Proclamation,” he said.

The problem of racial inequality in America, Glover said, “is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist, and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially.”

Emily Guskin and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.