On Wednesday, the legislation’s supporters hailed the vote as a historic step forward.
“Here we are today, marking up for the first time in the history of the United States of America any legislation that deals directly with the years and centuries of slavery of African American people who are now the descendants of those Africans,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who has introduced the legislation in every Congress since its original sponsor Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) retired in 2017. She added that the bill would serve as a necessary first step on a “path to restorative justice.”
Whether the bill will receive a vote by the full House is unclear, and the legislation faces a steep climb to making it into law.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday that he will begin to consider when to schedule it for a floor vote, but it is unlikely to be considered soon.
Hoyer said he hopes President Biden establishes a commission similar to the one detailed in the legislation if Congress fails to act. The White House has said Biden backs the legislation, but hasn’t commented on whether he would create a commission on his own.
The bill would establish a 15-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. The legislation is H.R. 40 — designated as such to reflect the “40 acres and a mule” that the U.S. government promised, and later rescinded, enslaved people after the Civil War.
Although Democrats are largely on board with the proposal, Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) used the moment to argue the nation also should issue an apology to the Mexican American community, which has faced discrimination and deportation for more than a century.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted against the measure, 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.
“Spending $20 million in taxpayer money to reach a conclusion you already know what it’s going to be,” said ranking Republican Jim Jordan (Ohio). “Look, everyone knows how evil slavery was, wrong as wrong can be. But this is not something we should be passing.”
Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), one of two Black Republicans in the House, characterized the legislation as portraying Black communities as helpless while ignoring their successes.
“Slavery was and still is an evil,” he said. “Reparation is divisive. It speaks to the fact that we are a hapless, hopeless race that never did anything but wait for White people to show up and help us, and it’s a falsehood.”
Jackson Lee asked her Republican colleagues to put politics aside and acknowledge that the commission would serve as a form of closure that Black Americans and the country need after generations of discrimination and disparities.
“That is the basis of this commission, to be able to look globally at the issue of slavery as the original sin and the brutality of it, and to then take the journey as it looks at the stark disparities in the African American community,” Jackson Lee said. “I hope we will not take the opportunity to point blame or to cast any actions of racism as one party or the other. It was America’s sin and that’s what we hope to address.”
Republicans did not heed her request.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) introduced an amendment that would make the Democratic Party pay for the commission’s fees “since it is the only relevant entity today that supported the institution of slavery” throughout U.S. history. It failed on a voice vote.
In response to Gohmert and other Republicans who made similar arguments that the Democratic Party bears responsibility for slavery, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) argued that “White privilege is bipartisan” and continues to plague the country as seen recently when members of the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 held Confederate flags.
“Slavery was indeed ended 150 years ago but racism never took a day off and is alive and well in America,” he said before referring to Black Americans who have recently been killed by police. “You can ask the family members of Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd. Black folks in this country cannot keep living and dying like this. But we’ll be forced to do so if White folks in America continue to refuse to look back at history.”
Several Democrats on the committee took issue with comments from Republicans, particularly those of Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who said the bill was “evil in its intent” and would cause division in the country.
“When someone in this room calls this evil and that this brings about evil, I cannot accept that,” Jackson Lee said. “I am offended.”
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said that hearing Republicans dismiss a reparations study poured salt in the wounds of families like hers that have stories in their histories of separation, slavery, rape and lynching.
“To the Republicans who are against this legislation, how dare you. How dare your nearly all-White panel puts so much energy and abuse your power to deny justice for the descendants of one the most egregious atrocities in the history of the world,” she said. “You have no idea what that’s like. You don’t know what that’s like. But the least that you can do is support research.”