Tensions High During Committee Hearing On Reparations for African Americans

June 21, 2019 by Elin Johnson
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates testifies during a hearing on slavery reparations held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on June 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/TNS) *FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY*

WASHINGTON – A House Judiciary subcommittee held the first congressional hearing in more than a decade on whether the federal government should consider compensating the descendants of slaves in the United States.

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who became the sponsor of a measure to study reparations, after the retirement of Representative John Conyers, D-Fla., said Wednesday that African Americans “are the only group that can singularly claim to have been slaves under the auspices of the United States government.”

In explaining the rationale behind the hearing, Jackson Lee said more than mere symbolism was involved.

“Why does a congress have to do it? Because the Congress is the law-making body of the federal government and it was the state and federal government that institutionalized laws that made slavery an act of the state,” the representative said, adding later, “I just simply ask: Why not and why not now?”

Representative Conyers first introduced a bill calling for study of “paths to reparative justice” more than 30 years ago, and he reintroduced it every year until his retirement in December 2017.

Representative Steve Cohen, D.-Tenn., chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, opened the session by saying “Slavery was a crime against society, one whose impacts we continue to grapple with today.”

“Slavery was our nation’s original sin,” he continued. “Our constitution protected it, embodied it, and [with] various compromises they gave disproportionate power to slave states.”

Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the panel, agreed, calling America’s history with slavery “regrettable and shameful.”

But he said he opposed paying monetary reparations for the “sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago,” something he believes would ultimately be found unconstitutional.

The hearing came at a time when discussions about reparations are growing louder.

Several in the large field of Democratic candidates for president  have endorsed looking at the idea, though most have stopped short of endorsing direct payouts for African Americans.

In testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, one of those candidates, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, said, the United States has “yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country’s founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality.”

“The stain of slavery was not just inked in bloodshed but in policies that have disadvantaged African Americans for generations,” he said.

Booker then described how hurt and angry he was that just Tuesday seven black men were shot in his neighborhood, which he described as a “black and brown intercity community below the poverty line.”

“I wonder if other senators had people shot like that in their community if that wouldn’t be a lead national story,” the senator said. “But I see the lives of low-income folks, of black and brown folks, when people are shot and killed the world seems to keep going on.”

“The characteristics of such an effort that I hear from others is wrong and undermines our collective purpose and common ground,” said Booker. “This idea that it’s just writing a check from one American to another falls far short of the importance of this conversation.”

Among the other high-profile witnesses at the hearing were actor Danny Glover and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates who drew new attention to the issue with his essay “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic magazine in 2014.

Coates began his testimony by taking issue with recent statements by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said no one alive today is responsible for slavery and that the nation was redeemed with the election of Barack Obama.

Coates said to take such a view is to deny the “dilemma of inheritance.”

“The question really is not whether we will be tied to the somethings of our past but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them,” Coates said.

Coates later spoke of the extension of mistreatment of African Americans during the post-Civil War Jim Crow era.

“If I agree to pay taxes and agree to fidelity to a government and you give me a different level of resources out of that tax pool, give me a different level of protection, you have in effect stolen from me,” Coates said. “This wasn’t a passive discrimination. This was appropriating resources from one group and giving them to the other through the auspices of the state.”

Not everyone was in agreement on the necessity for reparations.

Coleman Hughes, a student of philosophy and writer for Quilette, an online magazine focusing on politics and culture, said the payments being discussed would insult African Americans by putting a price on their ancestors’ suffering. He went on to suggest they would also turn African Americans into victims without their consent.

“I’m not saying history doesn’t matter. It does,” Hughes said. “I’m saying there’s a difference between acknowledging history and allowing history to distract us from the problems we face today,”

“Black people don’t need another apology. We need safer neighborhoods and better schools. We need a less punitive criminal justice system. We need affordable health care. And none of these things can be acheived through reparations for slavery,” he added.

The hall outside the hearing room was packed with people trying to get a seat. The audience within the room was vocal, causing the chairman to ask them to be respectful on several occasions. Testimony was met with applause, cheers, boos, and shouts of “you lie.”

A 2016 Point Taken-Marist poll found that 68 percent of Americans believe the country should not pay monetary reparations to the descendants of slaves. The same poll found that 8-in-10 white Americans oppose reparations, while 6-in-10 black Americans said they were in favor of them.

The survey of 1,221 adults was conducted April 27-28, 2016 and May 2-4, 2016 by The Marist Poll sponsored and funded in partnership with WGBH’s Point Taken. Adults 18 years of age and older residing in the contiguous United States were contacted on landline or mobile numbers and interviewed in English by telephone using live interviewers. The survey had a margin of error of ±2.8 percentage points.

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