After the Civil War, formerly enslaved families were promised by Union leadership 40 acres and a mule. The offer was never fulfilled, yet a reminder to the centuries-old promise that has remained in Congress for decades is H.R. 40, the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.”
The bill has been introduced in every legislative session since 1989, and nearly two years since the last hearing on H.R. 40, the bill and the idea of reparations received a new spotlight in Washington on Wednesday during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing.
H.R. 40's lead sponsor, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told ABC News on Tuesday the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing would “not be a hearing of anger and anguish, it will be a factual hearing, the witnesses come with facts, United Nations will be there and indicate that reparations is an international concept of healing, repairing and restoring."
The bill seeks to establish a commission to study "and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes," according to H.R. 40's text.
Since the last time a hearing was held on H.R. 40 in 2019, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has publicly announced her support for reparations. Jackson Lee notes that H.R. 40 has garnered the support of 170 members of Congress and 300 organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, NAACP and ACLU. However, in the three decades since the bill was first introduced, it has yet to reach the House floor for a vote.
Jackson Lee told ABC News, “we're determined to take this through markup, which is a procedural process that we utilize in Congress as you all know, and then to the floor, and then we want to get into the United States Senate.”
During the three-hour hearing, freshman Rep. Burgess Owens R-Utah, whose great grandfather was a slave, testified against the bill saying, "reparations is not the way to right our country's wrong.”
Jackson Lee later responded to Owens, saying that the bill is an effort, “to study, but it is also to develop reparation proposals. Now we come from a community, a race of people that have been known as overcomers. We shall overcome, and we have overcome. Mr. Owens has eloquently spoken of the overcomers, we're successful. We believe in determination. And we believe in overcoming the many bad balls that we have been thrown. We've caught them. And we've kept on going.”
Now that there has been a hearing, H.R.40 will need to be passed through the House Judiciary Committee. If it is passed there, the House can begin debate on the bill.
On Wednesday at a White House press briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that President Joe Biden supported the study of reparations. However, when asked if he would support a bill on reparations Psaki said, "We'll see what happens through the legislative process.”
Asked if Biden supports an executive order on the study of reparations, Psaki told reporters, "it would be up to him, he has executive order authority, he would certainly support a study, and we'll see where Congress moves on that issue."
She noted that the president had issued several executive orders on racial inequality.
“We don't need a study to take action right now on systemic racism so he wants to take actions within his own government in the meantime.”
Outside of Congress, many local and state governments and universities across the country have acknowledged their role in the slave trade and are exploring ways to address the issue.
Evanston, Illinois, in 2019, held the first of several meetings to gather community opinions on the issue of reparations. The city would later adopt a resolution to create a “reparations fund” as a part of the city budget to use tax revenue collected from the sales of recreational marijuana to support reparations in the city. Additionally, the fund also allowed for private contributions.
In the first phase of reparations, the city is giving up to $25,000 toward homeownership for Evanston residents and their direct decedents who suffered housing discrimination between 1919 and 1969.
In 2020, California passed a law to create a task force aimed at studying and making recommendations for reparations for Black Americans.
In North Carolina, several municipalities and local governments have apologized for slavery and segregation while focusing their efforts on prioritizing racial equity. The Asheville, North Carolina, city council voted unanimously last year to apologize for its role in slavery, vowing to provide reparations to black decedents through investments in an effort to fix disparities facing black residents.
"Hundreds of years of Black blood spilled that basically fills the cup we drink from today," one of the lead sponsors of the bill, city councilman Keith Young, said in 2020. "It is simply not enough to remove statutes. Black people in this country are dealing with issues that are systemic in nature.”
University of Connecticut professor Thomas Craemer has studied the topic of race and reparations for over 15 years. Craemer published a paper in 2015 estimating that the costs of slavery and loss of wealth through slavery cost a conservative estimate of $14.5 trillion through 2009, which didn’t account for inflation.
His study also didn’t account for colonial slavery or the loss of wealth due to discrimination after slavery.
He said the recent stimulus checks might be the blueprint for how reparations could be doled out. “[The] experience of trillions of dollars being sent to people's homes, through the tax system might, you know, might be an example of how this could be done fairly easily," Craemer said.
Craemer said he supports H.R.40 but thinks since the bill's first introduction, a great deal of research into reparations has been done. He said the focus should now be on providing "some reparations in addition to setting up a commission to do further research.”
Some other critics of H.R. 40 say that with the COVID-19 relief package still under debate, the effort for reparations should wait. Jackson Lee, a member of the House Budget Committee, said she would push for the $1.9 trillion relief bill and for $15 an hour minimum wage at the same time she's fighting for H.R. 40.
"We can’t wait-- I also join with the Biden administration that says we can do many things at once," she told ABC News Tuesday.
Jackson Lee notes, H.R. 40 is an “international legal concept; it's not something we've created here. It deals with restorative and repair, which is needed in this nation.”
“I think that in 2021. We want to isolate white supremacy. White racism, domestic terrorism, we want to look at each other as our fellow brothers and sisters, and as have been said to the ages, our fellow Americans, I want H.R. 40 to be in the minds and hearts about fellow Americans, pass it and quickly get it signed by the President of the United States," the Texas congresswoman said.