Late Wednesday night the House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill to study the issue of awarding reparations to the descendants of American slaves. The bill seeks to create a 13 person commission “to study the legacy of American slavery, racist laws and how they affected formerly enslaved people and their descendants.” The legislation advises the commission to consider a “national apology” and recommend “appropriate remedies to Congress. During the late-night vote, 25 Democrats supported advancing the bill, and 17 Republicans opposed it.
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“The goal of this historical commission and its investigations is to bring American society to the new reckoning with how our past affects the current conditions of African Americans and to make America a better place to help and truly study the disadvantage,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who introduced the current version of the bill in January.
The renewed debate over reparations comes amid a national reckoning over racial injustice, as Americans watch the proceedings in a white former police officer’s trial in George Floyd’s death and learn details of the case of another young Black man shot and killed by an officer in the Minneapolis area. It also comes as Black Americans continue to struggle disproportionately amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jackson Lee has said the measure could help “confront the stark societal disparities occurring in the African American community today,” and during the bill’s markup hearing, she referenced a study that found reparations would help address the health inequities that have persisted throughout the pandemic.
Polling has shown broad resistance in the general public to awarding reparations to people descended from slaves. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in June found that although Americans are increasingly becoming conscious of inequality in the U.S., only 1 in 5 respondents said the United States should use “taxpayer money to pay damages to the descendants of American slaves.”
Similar bills have been introduced to Congress before but have never gained much support. In 1989, the late Rep. John Conyers introduced a similar measure to create a committee to study the topic of reparations but the bill never moved forward.
Representative Burgess Owens (R-Utah) who is black, responded to the bill describing reparations as a “falsehood.”
“Slavery was and still is evil,” said Owens, who is Black. But reparations suggest “Black people are a hapless, hopeless race who never did anything but wait for white people to show up and help us,” he added.