House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate

Greg Nash

House Democrats on Wednesday will breathe new life into the debate over slavery reparations with a historic hearing on Capitol Hill.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will bring in big names like actor Danny Glover and author Ta-Nehisi Coates to generate media buzz around an issue that has languished in Congress for generations.

The hearing follows a bill from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) that would form a national commission to study whether descendants of slaves should receive reparations.

{mosads}While the bill has been backed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as well as the Democrats’ liberal base, it’s unclear where the legislation goes from here.

Reparations have also been a hot topic for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates vying for African American voters, a critical voting bloc in states like South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one White House hopeful, has authored a companion bill in the upper chamber to study reparations.

Booker will testify at Wednesday’s hearing, joining Glover and Coates, whose 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” reignited a national dialogue about the issue after it was published in The Atlantic.

However, some in the party are skeptical that Pelosi would bring the divisive issue to the full House floor during a crucial election cycle where Democrats are trying to hold the House and win back the Senate and White House.

The reparations bill would be a tough vote for swing-district and swing-state Democrats. And it would amount to a Democratic messaging bill since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has signaled the bill would go nowhere in his chamber.

“I would be astonished if Nancy Pelosi brought that to the floor,” one House Democrat told The Hill on Tuesday. “She is very sensitive to ‘the will of the people,’ and I doubt reparations enjoys much public support.”

Added one Democratic chief of staff: “I don’t think it will move.”

Nadler has not set a date for marking up the bill in the full Judiciary Committee. And a Pelosi spokesperson declined to comment on a possible floor vote.

Still, leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are remaining optimistic. CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, predicted the House would take action on reparations given that Democrats control the agenda and the floor.

And Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the CBC chairman before Bass, said he hoped Wednesday’s hearing — the first focusing on the issue in more than a decade — indicates impending congressional movement.  

“I would be very disappointed if it did not — that’s what the goal is. We’re not having a hearing just for our health,” he continued.

“The real question and conversation has to be how to you repair the damage that was done and the remnants of slavery? The bill calls for our body to study it; I think that is warranted, so my assumption is it goes to the floor.”  

The hearing will examine “the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.”

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), decided to schedule the hearing so that it falls on Juneteenth, a day marking the abolition of slavery in America.

Booker’s legislation is historic: It’s the only reparations bill to be introduced in the Senate after Reconstruction. Like Jackson Lee’s bill, the senator’s bill would establish a commission to examine the impacts of slavery in the U.S. — from its inception until the end of the Civil War in 1865 — and recommend ways to compensate the descendants of slaves.

The five other senators running for the Democratic nomination — Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) — have all signed on as co-sponsors.

The Jackson Lee bill, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, has 64 co-sponsors, including Nadler, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.).

But even if the Jackson Lee bill clears the House, McConnell made it clear Tuesday he won’t take it up in the Senate, arguing it would be incredibly difficult to figure out who exactly should be compensated.

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president,” McConnell told reporters in the Capitol.

“I think we’re always a work in progress in this country but no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it,” he added. “First of all it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”

Some supporters of reparations have pushed for cash payments to descendants of slaves, but other ideas include college scholarships and subsidized home mortgages for African Americans.

The Capitol building itself, along with many other landmarks in Washington, was built by slaves.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a CBC member, said lawmakers owe it to the country to at least study and debate the idea of reparations.

“It would open up a conversation on the actual contributions that African Americans made to the building and the foundation of this nation,” Wilson said. “Every time I walk through the Capitol and bring students there, I explain how thousands of people were employed with no pay to build the Capitol and the city of Washington.”

“Thousands of Africans’ lives were lost in the building of the Capitol. These are names we will never know,” she added. “It’s hallowed ground you’re walking on.”

Wilson said she believes Pelosi is committed to the reparations issue; the Speaker, Wilson said, is planning to join CBC members on a trip to Ghana this summer to mark the 400th anniversary of the start of the transatlantic slave trade.

“Yes, I think she’s gonna put it on the floor,” Wilson said.

Jordain Carney contributed.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Cedric Richmond civil rights Cory Booker Danny Glover Elizabeth Warren Frederica Wilson Hakeem Jeffries House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler Jerry Nadler Karen Bass Kirsten Gillibrand Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Reparations Sheila Jackson Lee Steve Cohen Ta-Nehisi Coates

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