Members of Congress are renewing efforts to reckon with the nation’s racial past, reintroducing legislation that could create a commission to study and possibly offer reparations to descendants of slaves.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, sponsored resolutions in both chambers of Congress in February to create a Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation.
“To realize our nation’s promise of being a place for liberty and justice for all, we must acknowledge and address the systemic racism and white supremacy that have been with us since our country’s founding and continue to persist in our laws, our policies and our lives to this day,” Booker said in a statement.
A reparations commission would study the ways in which systemic racism and persisting racial inequalities have impacted African Americans since the first ship carrying slaves came to what is now the United States in 1619.
“We’ve made substantial progress, but the legacy of systemic racism clearly shows that the chains of slavery have yet to be broken,” Lee said in a statement. “This commission will educate and inform the public about the historical context for the current inequalities we witness each and every day.”
Current inequalities for Black Americans, according to the resolutions, began with slavery and continued with the government’s failure to “ensure the safety and security of African Americans” with post-Civil War Reconstruction, and in laws passed by state and local governments.
The resolution also calls attention to the “other discriminatory actions” against to Black Americans and other marginalized communities like Puerto Ricans and Native Americans.
Eighteen Democratic senators co-sponsored Booker’s measure, including Maryland’s Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Chris Coons of Delaware, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Patty Murray of Washington, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont also is a co-sponsor.
There are 129 Democratic co-sponsors on the Lee resolution.
Separately, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, offered a separate measure in January, similar to proposals in earlier Congresses, to create a reparations commission. That bill has 169 Democratic co-sponsors.
President Joe Biden supports a study of the reparations issue, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Feb. 17.
“…He certainly would support a study of reparations, and.. understands that we don’t need a study to take action, right now, on systemic racism,” she said. “So he wants to take actions within his own government in the meantime.”
Republican lawmakers appear to be largely opposed to reparations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said two years ago: “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.”
Dr. William Darity, a Duke University professor who specializes in reparations, has openly criticized previous legislative attempts at creating a commission solely for reparations, but supports the latest push for a truth commission instead.
“The goal of a truth commission in terms of giving us accurate information about America’s racial history, that is valuable in and of itself,” Darity said in an interview with Capital News Service. “I feel a lot more positive about the truth commission idea.”
In any reparations proposal that comes about, Darity said, there needs to be three specific directives: an eligibility requirement that all recipients are Black Americans who are descendants of slaves; a focus on closing the racial wealth gap, which at minimum could lead to “$10-12 trillion in government expenditures,” as well as direct payments to eligible recipients.
“Any bill going forward that is completely open-ended in terms of what the commission can choose to do is really, potentially, quite dangerous,” Darity said.
In a Feb. 17 House Judiciary Committee hearing Booker reiterated his support for a a truth, racial healing and transformation commission, saying that the country needs to study slavery’s “harmful and painful legacy.”
“The stain of slavery was not just inked in bloodshed, but in the overt, state-sponsored policies that fueled white supremacy and racism and have disadvantaged African Americans economically for generations,” Booker said.
There are almost 400 nonprofit organizations supporting reparations legislation, according to Kenniss Henry, legislative commission co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparation in America, or N’COBRA.
The recent support, Henry noted, is partly due to an increased public awareness of social justice issues following the death of George Floyd in May 2020.
“At no other time have we been able to generate such support,” Henry said. “The biggest obstacles that are in the way are in Congress, with the inability for there to be bipartisan support for key legislation that provides greater opportunities for marginalized people.”