Is America ready to tackle its history of slavery and possible reparations for Black people? The longest serving member of Congress believes it’s time for constructive dialogue and action.
“I’m not giving up,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) who hosted a Capitol Hill briefing recently that drew activists, legal experts, scholars, politicos and community leaders from across the country. “Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is formally addressed, our country’s story will remain marked by this blight.”
Since 1989, Conyers’—a lawyer and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee—has repeatedly introduced—HR. 40—a bill that would establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery in the U.S. and its early colonies, and recommend appropriate remedies.
In January, the 87-year-old lawmaker re-introduced updated legislation for the 115th Congress. Now titled The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, it’s similar to the earlier measure but has been amended to reflect expanded legal and societal discourse about the Transatlantic Slave Trade and reparations.
Dozens of groups ranging from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to the Green Party, have expressed support for the bill.
“There’s renewed interest and renewed opportunity,” said Dr. Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and convener of the National African American Reparations Commission. “H.R. 40 is just one aspect of reparations,” he said while moderating the event panel discussion.
Indeed, there’s been increased public discourse around the issue: town halls and forums, legislation and resolutions, scholarly research and articles. To wit, when The Atlantic magazine published its June 2014 cover story “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, it practically broke the Internet.
Groups such as Black Lives Matter have included reparations in their platforms and the issue has had global reach. Last year, a United Nations report concluded that the U.S. should provide reparations to African-Americans for slavery and recent police killings. And at least a dozen Caribbean nations have established a commission to demand reparations from former European slave trading countries.
Moreover, a string of revelations continue to illustrate the deep tentacles of slavery in America’s early economic development. Major academic institutions (most recently Georgetown University) have acknowledged ties to the slave trade. New York Life and other firms have admitted they profited by selling 19th Century policies covering slaves, considered `chattel’ or property.
Nkechi Taifa, a human rights lawyer and panel presenter told attendees the “unjust enrichment” of individuals, companies and the U.S. government itself from slavery’s “generations of labor, deprivation and terrorism,” cries out for remedy.
“Reparations is repairing or restoring,” Taifa said. “It’s a formal acknowledgment and apology, recognition that the injury continues, commitment to redress and actual compensation.”
While “symbolic” resolutions did come under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, she added, they included disclaimers that forbade monetary claims.
Yet there’s ample legal precedent for reparations, be it financial settlements in the 1980s for Japanese Americans who were placed in U.S. internment camps during World War II, restoration of lands to Native Americans, or billions that Germany paid Jewish Holocaust survivors.
“This is not just about the money,” said Taifa, “but repairs.”
In a letter to Congressional colleagues, Conyers said the harm caused by slavery has reverberated for centuries and impacted descendants. After decades of Jim Crow segregation there’s been racial discrimination and policies that still affect many African-Americans today in education, housing, healthcare, and criminal justice.
A 2016 poll showed nearly seven in 10 Americans oppose paying reparations to African Americans, with opinions skewing along racial lines. The Exclusive Point Taken-Marist study (commissioned by WGBH Boston for its PBS debate series Point Taken) showed while white Americans overwhelmingly oppose restitution, a majority of African Americans favor redress; Latino Americans were about evenly divided. Older generations were more likely to oppose reparations while more than half of Millennials favored it.
Kamm Howard, a legislative committee co-chair with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA) said despite the hurdles around reparations, advocates would push forward. He said the next step is drumming up more legislative support for H.R. 40—which references the “40 acres and a mule” promised by the Union in 1865 to an estimated four million newly freed slaves.
When the Democrats controlled Congress, Conyers’ measure had as many as 70 co-sponsors; to date, fewer than two-dozen lawmakers have signed on. Attendees were urged to contact their Congressional representatives and exert political pressure so the bill does not wither on the vine yet again.
“Years ago, the reparations bill had a lot of momentum, and I think the issue still does,” said Mashariki Jywanza, an Indiana educator and NCOBRA member who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the briefing. “We have a new generation of young people who can help us organize and make it happen,” she said.
Amy Fiske, a college professor from West Virginia, plans to advocate around the issue. She was among a handful of white attendees at the briefing, but stressed that her conviction isn’t about race. “Reparations is a moral issue. Slavery was wrong for 400 years and it’s been a blot on the national body politic. We have to fix that, although the debt is so huge I don’t know how we could ever pay it back.”
For now, the reparations legislation has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. At press time, no other action had been taken.