By Sam P. K. Collins
More than 150 years ago, enslaved Africans in the state of Texas, among the last in the Confederacy to be freed from physical bondage, received word of their emancipation in what has since been commemorated as Juneteenth, a holiday of great significance to Black people in the United States.
This week, as Black people across the southern United States celebrated Juneteenth, members of the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties hosted a hearing on House Resolution 40 (H.R. 40), a bill mandating the study of reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans who, to this day, continue to endure the residual effects of chattel slavery, Jim Crow and other manifestations of institutionalized racism.
“The question of slavery, frankly, has never been addressed, particularly from the institutional governmental perspective. And I’ve updated the language of the resolution, H.R. 40 and that is that it is a commission to study and to engage in proposals, recommendations on the question of reparations,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas 18th District), sponsor of H.R. 40, told Michel Martin on Sunday during NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
On Wednesday morning, Jackson Lee hosted the hearing for H.R. 40, the first of its kind since 2007, in the Rayburn House Office Building. Veteran actor Danny Glover and author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates were among those scheduled to testify in support of what’s also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.
Thirty years ago, then-Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan 13th District) proposed the original H.R. 40 bill to no avail. From that point on, he reintroduced H.R. 40 every year until his retirement in 2017. Within that time, reparations had turned from a late-night television punchline to a serious matter, thanks in part to Coates’ 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations,” a detailed account of how the U.S. government disenfranchised descendants of enslaved Africans and continues to do so, more than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation.
In her NPR interview, Jackson Lee echoed that central theme, saying that the United States wouldn’t have earned its spot as a world power without the exploitation of enslaved Africans and their descendants.
“It really goes to, I think, more people understanding that 40 acres and a mule was a legitimate concept right after the Emancipation Proclamation and that never happened,” Jackson Lee said. “But yet cotton was king. It was an economic engine of the entire United States. And so the prominence of the United States today in the 21st century is grounded on the free brutal labor that Africans gave and their descendants.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has reportedly expressed support for the study of reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans. On the Senate side, Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey), a Democratic presidential candidate, introduced accompanying reparations legislation that five of his opponents have co-signed, albeit without any expectation that it would survive Republican opposition.
Reparations has been a prominent topic of discussion among the two dozen Democratic presidential candidates. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has endorsed the idea, as has Booker and fellow Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), along with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. Early in her campaign, best-selling author Marianne Williamson proposed $100 billion in reparations to be allocated toward economic and educational projects over a decade.
As stated in the Urban League’s 2018 “State of Black America” report, gaps in homeownership and other facets of a stable life in the U.S., persists between Black and white people. As recently as 2016, the majority of Black people expressed supported the idea of reparations. However, the question remains, among voters and candidates alike, of the shape the recompense would take, whether through a cash payout, tax credits and total restructuring of institutions.
Critics of H.R. 40, including activist and internet talk show host Yvette Carnell, said that the bill doesn’t have the specificity necessary to secure victory that belongs exclusively to African Americans, whom she refers to as American descendants of slavery. During the June 10 edition of her “Breaking Brown” program, Carnell tasked her followers with making demands for what she described as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“If a bill comes out of committee and makes it to the floor, it has to answer several key questions of who it goes to if you’re talking about reparations,” Carnell said. “The introduction has to be specific so it doesn’t get torn apart by committee. They can put it together with bills for Native Americans and other minorities and call it a minority bill. You have to be specific about who American descendants of slavery [are] and the mechanism for redistribution.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Informer.