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House panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations

House panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations
© Greg Nash

Legislation that would create a federal exploratory commission on reparations for Black Americans was approved Wednesday by a House committee for the first time, setting up a vote by the full Congress if Democratic leaders choose to bring it to the House floor.

It was a day of many firsts for the long-standing bill known as H.R. 40, as it had previously never received a markup or a committee vote.

Spearheaded by Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeVictims' relatives hold Capitol Hill meetings to push police reform Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote House panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations MORE (D-Texas), who took up H.R. 40’s cause after the late Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersDemocrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote House panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations Chicago suburb could serve as road map for reparations MORE (D-Mich.) retired from Congress in 2017, the bill passed through the House Judiciary Committee along party lines.

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The committee held a hearing on H.R. 40 back in February, which featured multiple reparative justice experts. The idea of reparations, while not new, has gained steam in recent years, and the legislation currently has 180 co-sponsors in the House, its most ever.

“Today, the U.S. Congress finally took the kind of action on reparations that movement advocates, experts and Black people have been demanding for decades,” Dreisen Heath, a racial justice researcher for Human Rights Watch who testified at the hearing, said in a statement.

“This milestone moves the nation one step closer to comprehensively reckoning with the disastrous effects of slavery that have been compounding for Black people every day.”

Reparations remains a controversial issue politically, and it's not certain the measure will reach the House floor, though there will certainly be pressure on Democrats to do so.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July House to consider anti-Asian hate crimes bill, protections for pregnant workers this month Top Democrat: Bill to boost Capitol security likely to advance this month MORE (D-Md.) on Wednesday did not commit to bringing the bill to the floor, saying he was waiting to see what the Judiciary Committee would do. In the meantime, he called on President BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE to form his own reparations panel from the White House — a process that would not force any centrist Democrats to take what might prove a difficult vote.

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Other Democrats, with eyes on their districts and the slim Democratic majority in the House, have suggested the party should stay away from such hot-button issues while focusing on economics.

Reparations are talked about as a way to fix the disparities that Black people in the country face because of the lasting legacy of slavery and subsequent racial discrimination.

For example, a group of researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice released a study in November stating that reparations for Black Americans would have reduced health disparities in Black communities, which in turn would have lessened the effect that COVID-19 has had on them.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people in the U.S. have been nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19, and almost twice as likely to die from it.

Proponents of the cause also point to the concerning wealth gap between white and Black people in the country.

In 2019, the median wealth of a Black family was $24,100, while the median wealth of a white family was nearly eight times higher, at $188,200.

While support for Black reparations has grown in recent years, it isn’t a wholly novel concept. Under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, the federal government doled out $20,000 direct payments to Japanese Americans who were interned by the federal government during World War II.

Some local and state governments have already taken strides toward beginning the process of reparations; California state lawmakers passed a bill similar to H.R. 40 last year.

Experts on the topic have stressed that direct payments are far from the only form that reparations can take.

“The vestiges of redlining, segregated schools, deliberately substandard medical care, none of those things can be solved by a check,” ACLU Trone Center for Justice and Equality Director Jeffery Robinson told The Hill in a previous interview. “Those things have to be solved by institutional changes.”

To this point, last month Evanston, Ill., passed the country’s first reparations program.

Instead of direct payments, the initiative allocates $400,000 to fund a block of $25,000 housing grants. Eligible Black residents who are accepted for the initiative will be able to put the funds toward either mortgage, home improvement or down payment assistance.

Mike Lillis contributed.