Civil Rights Activists Advocate for African American Reparations

February 18, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
A sculpture at the African-American Cemetery in Alexandria, Va. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Witnesses at a congressional hearing Wednesday said the African American community should receive reparations for the inequality and bigotry that started with slavery but continues now.

They were speaking in support of a recently reintroduced bill that would set up a new government commission to determine how injustices of the past could be rectified. The possibilities include new racial sensitivity programs, legislation and direct payments.

“They continue to feel that sting,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said about American history’s legacy of racial discrimination.

She showed old photos of lynchings, in which African Americans hung dead from trees while White people stood around watching. Another photo showed a slave with deep scars on his back from being whipped.

Lee reintroduced the controversial Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act (H.R. 40) at a time the United States is undergoing a racial reckoning as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. Concerns about inequality were amplified by evidence African Americans are dying at a disproportionately high rate from COVID-19. 

It was introduced originally by the late Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., every year beginning in 1989 until shortly before his death in 2017 but never received serious consideration. Now, it has 173 co-sponsors in Congress.

One of them is Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who chaired the House Judiciary subcommittee on Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties hearing Wednesday.

“Slavery was our country’s original sin,” Cohen said.

Even now, African Americans endure lower average wages, less education and more poverty than most White people, he said. They make up 13% of the U.S. population but control 3% of the wealth.

“The fact is we have a problem in this country and we need to deal with it,” Cohen said. “We need to make amends.”

H.R. 40 remains controversial even among the African American community, some of whom denounced it as impractical.

“Reparations are not the way to right our country’s wrongs,” said Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah.

The kinds of reparations discussed under H.R. 40 would create more problems than it solves, he said.

“It’s called redistribution of wealth or socialism,” Owens said.

He agreed African Americans often achieve in education and business at lower rates than White people. However, he said the solution was government programs to help them achieve at higher rates.

“These are policies, policies we can change,” Owens said.

Former professional football standout Herschel Walker, now an advocate for mental health and Republican causes, described reparations as unrealistic.

“Today America is a melting pot of many races, so would the money come from all other races except Black taxpayers,” he asked during the hearing. “Now the question is, who is Black and what percent of an individual is considered Black to receive reparations? Do we go to 23andMe or have a DNA test to determine the percentage of Blackness?”

He said time has advanced beyond the slavery of more than a century ago, requiring new solutions.

“If you want to help any race, give them an education that helps to incentivize through opportunities with responsibility, which helps generations in the future,” Walker said.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have both spoken in favor of H.R. 40, which is named for a failed effort after the Civil War to grant freed slaves “40 acres and a mule” to help them become self-supporting.

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