The bill was first proposed in 1989 by then-Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) but has never received a committee vote as it drew little interest from congressional leaders. But advocates of reparations pushed it to the forefront last year as racial justice protests were held across the country following more police killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The bill continues to face a steep climb to making it into law or to even receiving a vote from the full House, but supporters of the proposal are cheering on Wednesday’s vote as an important milestone in their push to deal with the human and economic wounds the institution of slavery has left on the country to this day.
“I think that there is a sentiment not of blaming our fellow Americans, but our fellow Americans being sympathetic and empathetic that reparations, restoration, repair will help all of us and that the present-day incidents that are occurring evidences that something needs to be done,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who sponsored the bill and has introduced it in each Congress since Conyers resigned in 2017. “No such bill has ever come this far during Congressional history of the United States.”
The bill would establish a 13-person commission that would study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States from before the country’s founding to today. The commission would then submit to Congress its findings and “appropriate remedies” on how best to compensate Black Americans.
What form reparations should take remains under debate among supporters, with some groups pushing for direct monetary payments to descendants of enslaved people while others argue that there are more-realistic proposals that could be put into law. Jackson Lee says the commission would gather recommendations from scholars before offering Congress a slew of proposals about how to end existing economic, health and educational disparities.
“No one should be frightened with the truth, solutions or suggestions, which can be systemic,” she said.
Committee Republicans are expected to vote against the bill Wednesday, with members of the party in both chambers arguing that reparations would force citizens who have no history of enslavers in their family or who had family members who fought to abolish slavery to have their tax dollars used to pay for the misdeeds of others.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in 2019. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president.”
Supporters of the bill also face the challenge of getting party leaders and members wary of the proposal on board. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with President Biden at the White House on Tuesday, and reparations was a topic of discussion, according to a list of meeting topics obtained by The Washington Post. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said Biden supports Lee’s bill, but it’s unclear how much the White House will push to have it considered beyond the committee.
Moderate Democrats probably will also need convincing that the bill should receive a House vote. Many complained that Republicans used issues such as the “defund the police” movement to flip House seats in the 2020 election, and these members could be wary of tackling a controversial topic such as reparations, particularly if whether the Senate will take up the measure remains unclear.
House Democratic leaders have yet to publicly state whether the full House will vote on Lee’s legislation.
“This is an important issue as we work to advance racial equity and we will continue to discuss it with the Caucus,” said a Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s view of the proposal.
Some supporters of reparations expressed skepticism that the bill was the right solution and said they hoped changes would be made to it Wednesday or down the road.
Duke University public policy professor William Darity Jr., who has studied reparations for over 30 years, said that the proposal’s broad language should be revised, including to make clear that only descendants of people enslaved in the United States are eligible to receive compensation and to task the commission with proposing a plan that addresses the Black-White wealth gap.
“I am very skeptical about H.R. 40 being the mechanism to get us from here to there. Unless the markup process results in major revision of the bill, it will not propel our nation toward true reparations,” he said.
Darity has put the cost of direct payments to all descendants of enslaved people at roughly $10 trillion to $12 trillion.
Most Americans believe the U.S. government should not make direct payments to descendants of enslaved people, according to recent surveys. A July 2020 Post-ABC News poll showed that 63 percent of Americans opposed reparations, including 93 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats. Democrats and Black Americans in particular were much more inclined to favor it than other party groups and racial groups.
However there has been a shift in support for it the past two decades, with 31 percent surveyed in the 2020 poll saying they do want to see Black Americans receive compensation compared to the 19 percent who said the same in a 1999 ABC News poll.
Reparations has become an issue for some local governments as well.
Evanston, Ill. became the first city in the country to establish a reparations program when its City Council voted to approve the first phase of compensation to make amends for the city’s redlining and housing discrimination practices. Under the program, Black residents who can show they are direct descendants of individuals who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 and suffered from such discrimination could receive $25,000 homeownership and improvement grants, as well as mortgage assistance.
Reparations were also an issue during the Democrats 2020 presidential primary, with liberal candidates saying they supported direct payments while others such as Biden took a more cautious approach. He often found himself tiptoeing around the subject by stating his support for Jackson Lee’s commission bill and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn’s 10-20-30 formula, which would require that at least 10 percent of rural development investments be made in communities where 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for 30 years or more.
Once Biden became the party’s presidential nominee, he was often pushed by some constituencies to support the more-aggressive policies pushed by his liberal primary opponents, including now-Vice President Harris. During his first public campaign event amid the pandemic in Wilmington, Del., days after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, state Sen. Darius Brown (D) was the first of many to publicly call on the Democratic candidate to do more.
“We’re here not only to love you, but to push you. Because if we can publicly support every other Democratic base, then we should publicly support the African American Democratic base. And it shouldn't be a study of reparations; it should be funding reparations,” Brown said.