Correcting The Original Sin: Congress Debates Reparations For Slave Descendants

After almost a decade, lawmakers in Congress have reapproached the topic of America’s  enslavement of 4 million Africans and their descendants. The Congressional hearing was held on the June 19th, or ‘Juneteenth’, a day which commemorates the Union Troops landing in Galveston, Texas in 1865 as they declared freedom for slaves across the defeated South.
The focus of the legislation drafted by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee debated whether reparations can atone for the past, and discussed the legacy of slavery, the Jim Crow segregation and, in more recent history, the mass incarceration, inequality and poverty that still plagues the descendants of slaves, and many others, in modern America. The House Judiciary Subcommittee lasted for nearly three and a half hours as it delved into the darkest parts of American history, demonstrating the bitter cultural and ideological divides within the nation.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that no reparations bill will pass while he controls the Senate, stating “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin, slavery, by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation”. Following this sentiment, Republican witness Coleman Hughes, an African-American writer and New York student, argued that restitution “would insult many black Americans by putting a price on the suffering of their ancestors” and that “If we were to pay reparations today, we would only divide the country further, making it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today.”

Meanwhile, actor Danny Glover told the panel that reparations would remedy “the damages inflicted by enslavement and forced racial exclusionary policies.” “A national reparations policy is a moral democratic and economic imperative”.

The concept of reparations for victims is not new. German corporations that employed slave labour paid reparations to Jewish Holocaust victims; similarly, the U.S. government has paid $60,000 to every Japanese American person held in detention camps during World War II. However, in recent times the call for reparations for U.S. slave descendants has divided the public. The debate has often fallen upon deaf ears, with many stating that all former slaves have since died and the money should not go to the living descendants. An alternative view is that the money given as restitution could go towards projects that aim to enhance the quality of life for African Americans. Currently the figures are stacked against black Americans, as nearly one million black people are incarcerated, black unemployment levels stand at 6.6% – more than double the national rate, approximately 31% of black children live in poverty again more than twice the national figure and black families have an average net worth of $17,100 a tenth of the average accumulated wealth of white households. Economists have routinely pointed to the legacy of slavery as a starting point to explain the wealth gap. Therefore, help and understanding are needed to bridge the gap affecting the divide between white and black communities.

The original bill, titled HR 40, was first introduced in 1989 by John Conyers, a former Democratic congressman from Michigan. Since 2017, the bill has been sponsored by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee. Her legislation aims to establish a 13-person commission to study the possible forms of compensation for the descendants of slaves as well as alternative forms of rehabilitation or restitution. The debate was reignited back in 2014 after The Atlantic magazine published a 14,000-word article by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, becoming the most comprehensive case for reparations. However, the idea of reparations stretches back to emancipation, as it was enshrined in the promises of Abraham Lincoln to provide compensation to the freed slaves on southern land with “40 acres and a mule”. This pledge was later revoked by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.

While it is unlikely that the bill for reparations will pass, the discussion it has brought up will shed light on an issue that has been tucked away for too long. Many have contended that this cause reinforces the role of black Americans as victims and looks to the past rather than the future. Yet, we need to look to the past for reconciliation in the future, for the effects of such a violent and forced act such as slavery is real and lasting. Having this hearing take place is in itself remarkable. It is a reflection of the shifting landscape and demonstrates that now, more than ever a willingness to accept a violent and traumatic past. Therefore, knowing that these debates can be had is a step in the right direction. Ta-Nehisi Coates summed up the discussion, by describing slavery as an institution which continued to “disenfranchise, subjugate, and oppress black Americans,” that shaped the poverty, violence and incarceration endured by too many today.

Isha Tembe