I'm Very Excited For Congress To Maybe (Just Maybe!) Find Out Exactly How Much My Ancestors Were Screwed Over

Illustration for article titled I'm Very Excited For Congress To Maybe (Just Maybe!) Find Out Exactly How Much My Ancestors Were Screwed Over
Image: Jon Cherry (Getty Images)

In 2019, Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee sponsored H.R. 40, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. Its goal is simple but daunting: Create a commission that will study the legacy of chattel slavery in the United States to determine whether there is a case to be made for distributing reparations to the descendants of slaves.


It had little hope of making any real leeway back then, what with a Republican president in the White House and a Republican majority in the Senate. But the tables have turned, with Democrats dominating Congress and Joe Biden as president. Vice President Harris supported the legislation, and while Biden made no commitment to supporting H.R. 40 specifically, during his presidential run, he said he supported a reparations study. So H.R. 40 is certain to march forward, right?

Well, a House Judiciary Committee subpanel met on Wednesday to discuss the measure, and apparently, the answer is closer to... who the fuck knows?

Politico reports that support Harris and Biden might not be enough to actually prompt momentum behind this legislation, despite having the backing of 173 Democrats and benefitting from renewed interest following the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020.

Even longtime proponents of reparations have acknowledged the challenges to getting the legislation passed. It is sure to face vehement pushback from Republicans in both chambers, dimming its chances given Democrats’ narrow majorities. [...]

Lawmakers demonstrated varying degrees of understanding of the legislation during Wednesday’s hearing. A handful, including Reps. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), said they opposed using taxpayer funds to distribute reparations, which falls outside of the bill’s current scope.

Republicans are obviously ideologically opposed to any kind of distribution program, let alone one that would benefit Black Americans, who have suffered the brunt of economic detriment thanks to slave labor, unfair housing and labor laws, and navigating racist justice systems and policing. Why do the right thing when you can whine about the specter of socialism instead? But let’s be honest: Republicans aren’t the only ones who will get in the way of meaningful movement on reparations.

[...] the bill will have to compete for attention with higher-profile proposals that also would help Black communities grappling with systemic economic disadvantage. Chief among them is Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, which includes provisions for minority-owned businesses and health care centers in neighborhoods of color.

Democrats also have supported smaller-scale solutions to take the place of direct payments to African Americans. Harris, for one, proposed a tax credit in 2018 that would provide financial relief to middle and low-income Black households.

But advocates for pursuing the reparations conversation say those narrowed proposals shouldn’t be a substitute for studying the sweeping concept of restoring what slavery robbed from generations of African Americans.


And “studying” is the key word here. This isn’t even a bill that demands reparations be distributed to descendants of slaves in the form of cold hard cash or land (40 acres and a mule, even). It’s literally just commissioning research, the results of which will either eventually lead to a robust reparations program (pipe dream) or something a lot more pathetic (and more likely): A big ol’ “I’m sorry” from the government for depriving millions of Black Americans of entryways to economic prosperity. Unfortunately, it’s only too easy to imagine this commission coming to some damning conclusions about the ways in which chattel slavery still impacts Black Americans to this day and then... nothing. The accomplishment—the pat on the back—will be the research and little else among the majority of lawmakers. We’ll go back and forth about how reparations could ever be distributed (as if this hasn’t been researched to hell and back already) and then move on to the next hot thing.

But who knows, maybe we’re in for a surprise. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but hope springs eternal.

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.