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US Congress holds hearing on reparations for slavery in wake of BLM

Congress held its first hearing on reparations for slavery since the May 2020 death of George Floyd, which reignited the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Members of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties met over Zoom Wednesday to discuss H.R. 40, which aims to ‘establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery.’    

Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who’s spearheading the effort, argued her case with images, holding up pictures of a beaten slave and lynched black Americans. 

Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is spearheading the effort to get H.R. 40 passed. If the resolution gets signed it would form a commission to study reparations for slavery 

Former National Football League player Herschel Walker

Conservative talk show host Larry Elder

The Republicans brought in witnesses Herschel Walker (left), a former National Football League player, as well as conservative talk show host Larry Elder (right), who both argued against reparations 

Freshman Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, who's also a former National Football League Player, is a Republican and also argued against reparations during the hearing

Freshman Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, who’s also a former National Football League Player, is a Republican and also argued against reparations during the hearing 

Freshman Democratic Rep. Cori Bush was pro-reparations, pointing to how the government treated her black grandfathers, who were not given the same GI benefits as white veterans

Freshman Democratic Rep. Cori Bush was pro-reparations, pointing to how the government treated her black grandfathers, who were not given the same GI benefits as white veterans 

‘This was our life, the back of a beaten slave. This was our life in to the 20th century, hangings of African-Americans, men and women. This was our life, when we were in public display, brutalized,’ the Texas congresswoman said, showing several grisly images. 

She put those images in the Congressional record. 

Democrats brought in academics, civil rights leaders and California’s new secretary of state, Shirley Weber, as witnesses, to discuss why H.R. 40 should be passed. 

The resolution to study reparations was first introduced by the now late Rep. John Conyers in 1989 and was named after the ’40 acres and a mule’ that freed black Americans had been promised, but then the federal government didn’t act on. 

It would green light a commission to study the issue.  

A number of Democratic witnesses argued that the term ‘reparations’ stands for more than just financial hand-outs.   

‘Popular conceptions of reparations are often fairly narrow, focusing only on financial compensation. But by contrast the international system places emphasis on a more comprehensive approach, according which financial compensation may certainly be necessary, but not sufficient,’ explained UCLA law professor Tendayi Achiume, who advises the United Nations. ‘Other required measures may include transforming the political, economic and social institutions and mechanisms for disclosing truth and restoring dignity for those subject to racial subordination, resulting from legacies of enslavesment,’ Achiume explained.  

UCLA law professor Tendayi Achiume, who advises the United Nations, explained how broad the term 'reparations' can be

UCLA law professor Tendayi Achiume, who advises the United Nations, explained how broad the term ‘reparations’ can be 

Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, spoke about how commission hearings on reparations for Japanese-American internment victims, were heeling for that community

Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, spoke about how commission hearings on reparations for Japanese-American internment victims, were heeling for that community 

And some witnesses pointed out that reparations have been given out by the government before.  

Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, spoke of the reparations given to interned Japanese Americans, and also noted that the commission hearings – which H.R. 40 would green light for African-American reparations – helped the healing process in the community.  

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Deborah Ross spoke about how her state has come up with reparations for forced sterilization by the government.

‘I don’t believe that this particular resolution prescribes a way of going forward, but it’s a conversation about what we need to do,’ Ross said. ‘And just as we did in North Carolina, when we passed a bill compensating people for forced sterilization, a terrible, terrible chapter in our history.’         

Committee Republicans brought in former National Football League player Herschel Walker and talk show host Larry Elder as their guests.   

Walker mainly argued about the impracticality of a reparations policy. 

‘How many African-Americans was alive today that was in slavery? Which is none. So I go to some of the older people for experience and I remember my mom mentioning, how could we pay for your great, great, great grandfather being burned to death? Or how could we pay for your great, great uncle being hung? And I understand that those pictures are horrible,’ Walker said, mentioning the lynching photos Jackson Lee had showed those participating in the hearing. ‘But right now, I think the fact finding is going to be very difficult to go back over history when history is not even taught in school on what we’re trying to in fact find.’ 

Walker also asked: ‘Where would the money from from? Does it come from all the other races except the black taxpayers? Who is black? What percentage of black must you be to receive reparations? Do you go to 23andMe or a DNA test to determine the percentage of blackness?’   

Elder agued that systemic racism is not the main problem.   

‘Obviously there are black people who are poor, the extend of which the poverty is a result of slavery and Jim Crow is tenuous at best,’ Elder said. ‘The larger factor behind black povery is the absense of fathers in the home.’ 

Elder also called reparations for slavery the ‘greatest generational transfers of wealth back and forth, because virtually every people on the face of the earth was involved in slavery.’ 

Rep. Burgess Owens, a freshman Republican from Utah, used the venue to place blame on the Democrats for most of the U.S.’s sordid racial history.  

‘It has not been an American problem, it has been pretty specific. When you think about where slavery began, where segregation, where Jim Crow, it’s always the Democratic Party,’ Owens said. 

‘Earlier we mentioned 40 acres and a mule, that was ended by a Democratic president, Andrew Johnson, we talked about the KKK, that was a Democratic terrorist organization that actually was ended, at the end of the 1880s, but brought back again by Woodrow Wilson in 1915,’ he continued. 

Owens called reparations ‘impractical and a non-starter’ and said it was ‘unfair and heartless to give black Americans the hope that this is a reality.’  

‘The reality is that black American history is not a hapless hopeless race oppressed by a more powerful white race,’ he said, calling the current inequities ‘the failure of policies.’ 

Owens is just one of two black Republicans in the House.  

Freshman Democratic Rep. Cori Bush spoke of her family’s experience with racism, as she argued to advance the resolution.  

‘My family was denied the promise, denied the promise of 40 acres and a mule in the aftermath of the Civil War and the start of reconstruction,’ Bush began.

‘My story is the story of a great grandfather who served this country in World War I and a grandfather who served this country in World War II, only to be discarded by their government as they suffered through trauma and the wounds of war,’ she continued. 

‘When white soldiers came back from fighting abroad, they were given housing preferences and education subsidies,’ she said. 

Bush said her grandfathers were denied those benefits. 

‘My story is a story of men and women who fled violence, who was stripped of their right and protections, who were left out of GI bills and New Deal subsidies,’ calling the racism systemic, structural and political.  

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday after the Judiciary subcommitte hearing that President Joe Biden was supportive of studying reparations, as the resolution called for. 

There were no plans to create the commission by executive order, she also said, while pointing out other unilateral actions Biden has taken to address racial inquality since taking office last month. 

‘He would certainly support a study and we’ll see where Congress moves on that issue,’ Psaki said. 

Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, used the Black Lives Matter movement as a wedge issue during the 2020 campaign, downplaying the country’s history of racism, and leaning into a message of ‘law and order.’ 


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