On Juneteenth in 2019, lawmakers met with Black activists and scholars to discuss H.R. 40—a bill to create a reparations commission to examine the impact of slavery and the possibility of compensation for the descendants of enslaved Africans—during a hearing by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
But way back then—before the seemingly endless time warp that was the year 2020—the nation was still run by Donald Trump and his Republican enablers who were all about making America great again by maintaining its traditional roots of being a land of the white people, by the white people and for the white people. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed that he didn’t support “reparations for something that happened 150 years ago.” He followed that statement with other passages from the Congressional Code of Caucasity saying (and I’m paraphrasing, of course) that “no white people alive today owned slaves,” that “America said ‘I’m sorry’ with the Civil War,” and, of course, “But...but...but we elected a Black president.”
So back then, bill H.R. 40 was pretty much dead before it was even seriously considered, but now that there’s a new administration running the White House and a political shift in congressional control, the bill’s 2019 sponsor, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), has reintroduced the legislation ahead of a new hearing on reparations.
From the Washington Post:
The reparations commission would study the history of slavery, the role federal and state governments played in supporting slavery, and racial discrimination against the descendants of enslaved Africans.
“Economic issues are the root cause for many critical issues impacting the African American community today,” Lee said.
The commission would make recommendations regarding “any form of apology,” compensation and atonement for slavery, Lee said. “Truth and reconciliation about the ‘original sin of American slavery’ is necessary to light the way to the beloved community we all seek. The uncomfortable truth is that the United States owes its position as the most powerful nation in the world to its slave-owning past.”
Dreisen Heath, an official with Human Rights Watch who is scheduled to testify at the reparations hearing set for next week, according to the Post, said that “promises to end white supremacy, end systemic racism, and provide racial healing ring deeply hollow if the federal government is not taking steps to advance reparations for slavery, other forms of state-sponsored violence against Black people, and ongoing racial discrimination created by public policy.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who chairs the judiciary subcommittee, said that the upcoming hearing “will look into creating a review of that history and what should be done about it,” and that “our nearly 250-year history of slavery has never been properly addressed and certainly has had an adverse effect upon African Americans’ economic opportunities.”
Cohen is right about slavery never being properly addressed because—while the current discussion around reparations revolves around what can be done now to repair the damage of slavery—it’s worth noting that nothing was done at the time slavery supposedly ended.
More from the Post:
The number 40 in H.R. 40 refers to “40 acres and a mule,” a broken promise made by the government to newly freed enslaved people at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
“The Union victory in the Civil War helped pave the way for the 13th Amendment to formally abolish the practice of slavery in the United States,” according to a National Archives history. “But following their emancipation, most former slaves had no financial resources, property, residence, or education — the keys to their economic independence.”
Government efforts to help formerly enslaved people “achieve some semblance of economic freedom, such as with ‘40 acres and a mule,’ were stymied,” according to the National Archives. “Without federal land compensation — or any compensation — many ex-slaves were forced into sharecropping, tenancy farming, convict-leasing, or some form of menial labor arrangements aimed at keeping them economically subservient and tied to land owned by former slaveholders.”
So H.R. 40 still has an uphill battle in its journey to congressional approval—and it’s worth the reminder that this isn’t even a bill that promises reparations, but one that allows a commission to examine the possibility of reparations—so we just have to hope that America is truly ready for a racial reckoning that says “I’m sorry” with actual restitution.
I wouldn’t hold my breath, but we can always hope and keep the pressure up in an effort to make America great for the first time.