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House subcommittee debates reparations bill for Black Americans

Members of a House subcommittee Wednesday debated the merits of legislation that would establish a federal commission to explore reparations for Black Americans, marking the first time the panel has held a hearing on the topic since 2019.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a virtual hearing to discuss a bill first introduced by the late Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) in 1989. The legislation has never received a floor vote.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) reintroduced the measure, H.R. 40, in January. The bill has 162 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

“We believe in determination, and we believe in overcoming the many bad balls that we have been thrown; we’ve caught them, and we’ve kept on going. That is not the point of H.R. 40,” Jackson Lee said in her opening statement. “Now more than ever, the facts and circumstances facing our nation demonstrate the importance of H.R. 40 and the necessity of placing our nation on the path to reparative justice.”

Several of the hearing’s witnesses mentioned the significant health disparities in communities of color that have taken center stage during the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, Black Americans have died from COVID-19 at a higher rate than white Americans, and initial vaccine distribution data has shown that Black Americans have received a disproportionately lower percentage of vaccinations.

Civil rights proponents have for years argued that reparations could help close the multitude of inequities still faced by Black Americans.

Some local and state governments have already taken strides toward beginning the process of reparations, most notably in California, where legislators passed a bill similar to H.R. 40 last year.

“We are very clear that we need not ask whether or not slavery has had an impact, but instead illuminate the extent to which it has had an impact,” California Secretary of State Shirley Weber said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Hilary O. Shelton, head of the NAACP’s Washington, D.C., office, added during his testimony: “The issue of slavery is one that did not end with a stroke of Abraham Lincoln’s pen and the Emancipation Proclamation. …  As a matter of fact, many of the residuals of the transatlantic slave trade sadly, as we look at the disparities in data, are still very much with us.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, when asked later in the day about President Biden’s position on the legislation, told reporters that the president supports “a study of reparations.”

Republicans on the subcommittee pushed back against the need for reparations.

“The reality is that Black American history is not one of a hapless, hopeless race oppressed by a more powerful white race,” said Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), who is Black. “It’s the history of millions of middle and wealthy class Black Americans throughout the early 20th century, achieving the American dream.”

Echoing that viewpoint with their testimony were two Black conservative figures, radio show host Larry Elder and Heisman Trophy winner and NFL star Herschel Walker.

Former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a Democrat who served in the George W. Bush administration, was scheduled to also give testimony but was absent due to illness, subcommittee chair Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said at the beginning of the hearing.

The subcommittee has not scheduled a markup of H.R. 40.

Updated at 2:25 p.m.

Tags African Americans Black Americans Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Conyers Reparations Sheila Jackson Lee Slavery Steve Cohen

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