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House hearing on reparations initiates complex discussion

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Testimonies at last week’s House hearing examining the proposed reparations bill, H.R. 40, re-confirmed an indisputable fact—slavery built America. Across the board, those who testified pointed to specific injustices Blacks faced after slavery and generations later. However, when it came to ways in offering restorative justice, if any reparations at all, ideas diverged.

As much as the ideas and perspectives differed from speakers, so did reaction to the packed audience who clapped, booed and cheered at points made by the speakers. At one time, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN told people to “chill” using hip hop colloquialism to the mostly Black crowd.

If passed, H.R. 40 will launch a commission to study the impact of slavery and offer proposals for reparations to the descendants of those enslaved in the United States.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties led by Rep. Cohen, called for the hearing on the African-American holiday, Juneteenth.  Notwithstanding, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) emphasized that the hearing was anything, but “symbolic.”

The Texas congressional representative continued: “[African Americans are the] only . . . group that can singularly, singularly claim to have been slaves under the auspices, the institution and leadership of the United States government. And so, H.R. 40 is in fact, the response of America [and is] long overdue. Slavery is the original sin. Slavery has never received an apology.”

Additionally, she explained that the commission would consist of members selected by the president, the Speaker and Leader of the House, and those who have “been entrenched in the process.”

During the session, the House panel listened and discussed the topic with a mixed collective including: scholars, creatives, a religious leader, an Ivy League student and a former NFL football player-turned-author.

A main exploration was the financial foundation slavery provided to America, and the subsequent racial wealth gap occurring from post-Emancipation on.

“No, I did not pick cotton,” said Rep. Jackson-Lee who pointed out the importance of a bill that will take place over 150 years after slavery ended, if approved. “But I will say that those who picked cotton created the very basic wealth of this nation,” she added.

Julianne Malveaux, an economist and former college president who serves on National African American Reparations Commission testified, “Enslavement was about the devil’s work of predatory capitalism. Indeed, enslaved people got no wages and we represented capital for other people.”

With the absence of paid labor, and subsequent government practices disenfranchising Black communities, speakers said that a deep and wide racial wealth gap emerged. Malveaux informed the audience that in 1880, the ratio of the Black dollar to the white dollar was 1 to 36. In 1910, it was 1 to 16. Today, it is 1 to 20. She said, “In other words, we’re almost worse off in 2019 than we were in 1910 . . . because basically there have been deliberate attempts to marginalize African American people.”

Generational wealth deferred

Like other guests, author Ta-Nehisi Coates provided information on the wealth that was accumulated as a result of slavery. “It is impossible to imagine an America without the inheritance,” he insisted. “Almost half of the economic activity in the United States derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves.”

The wealth of America, and specifically, white Americans was explicated by Katrina Browne, a filmmaker who chronicled how her Rhode Island family was the largest slave owning family in the U.S. According to Browne, her family, involved in the maritime aspect of slavery, transported thousands of Africans by bringing 12 thousand to the US.

“Most of us learned a distorted history of America,” told Browne who said that the “amnesia in [her] family largely matched the amnesia of the [whites] in the North.”

She listed several key ways the North were benefactors and major players during slavery. Such as owning and operating the mills that processed cotton. Another important fact she provided was that Midwestern and Western states fed the South because much of the land cultivated by slave labor went to cash crops.

Said Browne, “The North was deeply implicated . . . slavery was in the North for over 200 years.”

In Browne’s testimony, she addressed how millions of white immigrants benefited. “People who immigrated from Europe after slavery were implicated . . . they were given access to the American dream.”

Browne asked. “Why were waves of immigrants flocking here? Because it was the land of opportunity. Why was the economy booming? Why were there jobs? Because it had largely been built on unpaid labor. Once here, European immigrants got to systematically leapfrog over Black families with devastating consequences up until present day. So slavery built the nation. Turning us into an economic powerhouse due to good folk who participated in mundane ways, but turned the other way.”

Inherited injustice

Browne addressed an issue many non-Blacks raise, and in particular white Americans. Asking, why must they held accountable for something they did not participate in. “White people tend to imaging that Black people are angry at us. But in my experience, Black Americans don’t blame us for the deeds of bygone ancestors, but are indeed rightfully angry that we just don’t drop our defensiveness or self-absorbed guilt and sign up to work with them and work shoulder-to-shoulder to tackel the legacies that are still with us.”

“The system of enslavement is the most studied in America,” said Coates. “But I think, even given that, it’s worth noting the lack of penetration that those studies have had in the mindset of America.”

Just days before the House hearing on H.R. 40, Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-AL) questioned why he should be responsible for something that happened before he was born. His concern is a common sentiment. Even, former US Vice-President, Joe Biden, said in 1975, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather,” Biden said at the time. “I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.

In the hearing, Malveaux dealt with these longstanding ideas. “So anybody who says, ‘Well, I didn’t have any slaves.’ No you didn’t have to have any. What you had to do is experience them. Enjoy the fact that they were here. Enjoy the fact that their labor made it possible for there to be a Wall Street, a bond market, and all of that.”

Coates called Sen. McConnell’s position “a familiar reply.” He countered, “well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back 200 years, despite no one being alive.”

As well, Coates brought up that Sen. McConnell, though not alive during slavery, lived during a time when “Black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror. A campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”

Coates continued. “We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But, he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney . . . he was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft.”

| Read Kelly Burton on the racial wealth gap and entrepreneurs |

Cut the check

Along with the financial disenfranchisement are the social, political and cultural maltreatments discussed by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) who introduced the Senate version of the reparations bill, S. 1083, in April of this year. Now, he has 12 co-sponsors.

Booker, who owns a house in one of Newark’s low-income communities said, “I look at communities like mine and you can literally see how communities were designed to be segregated. Designed, based upon enforcing institutional racism and inequities.”

While Booker decreed that “these injustices do not just cause injustices for African Americans, it enforces a deep injustice on our nation as a whole,” he argued for “practical ideas to address the enduring injustices in our nation,” in the study.

For him and Rep. Jackson-Lee, monetary payment is not the remedy. “The idea of writing one check from one American to another falls far short of the importance of the conversation,” said Booker.

However, Coates, a distinguished writer in residence, at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University, refuted Booker. Said Coates. “There’s been a lot of, shall we say, shade throwing on the notion of cutting checks. I just want to say that in the spirit of openness, in the spirit of actual study, I don’t think we should necessarily rule out cutting checks. There are people who deserve checks. And so I think that, that actually should be part of the study.”

Known for his 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations,” in The Atlantic, Coates reignited the conversation on federal compensation for descendants of those enslaved in the US. At the hearing, he raised issues on Blacks not being entitled to full citizenship with the legacy of slavery. “The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement and reject fair weather patriotism,” he contended.

Coates pressed on in showing the inequity from slavery is “the idea that white people and Black people are somehow are deserving of different things.”

Ending his testimony, he compared historical figures and events connected to the nation. Coates concluded, “To say that a nation is both its credits and its debits. That if [former US President] Thomas Jefferson matters, so does [the 14-year old enslaved woman he had children with] Sally Hemmings. If D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Ft. Pillow.”

| Read House hearing on reparations scheduled for Juneteenth |

A case against reparations

Whereas Coates disrupted the national narrative, actor-activist Danny Glover, Yale University student, Coleman Hughes and NFLer, Owen Burgess and told familial histories like Browne. Glover called for reparations, citing how the city he grew up in has displaced Blacks since the 1960s.

“This is a study that looks at all racism and all of its manifestation and can in terms of gentrification as well . . . they’re longstanding issues that go back and find themselves resonating in slavery,” said the veteran actor who has participated in a number of movements.

On the other hand, Hughes, a Columbia University student opined that he did not suffer like generations before him. “What we should do is pay reparations to Black Americans who actually grew up under Jim Crow and were actually harmed by second class citizenship,” he said.

“I was born three decades after the end of Jim Crow into a privileged household in the suburbs. I attend an Ivy League school. “ Hughes goes on “. . . so reparations for slavery would allocate federal resources to me, but not to an American with the wrong ancestry, even if that person is living paycheck-to-paycheck and working multiple jobs to support a family. You might call that justice. I call it justice for the dead at the price of justice for the living.”

Countering Hughes’ position, Coates pointed out. “It’s been said or I think alluded to repeatedly throughout this conversation that somehow wealthy African Americans are immune to these affects. But in addition to the wealth gap that’s cited, one thing that folks should keep in mind is that “wealthy African Americans” are not the equivalent of wealthy white Americans in this country.”

The only voice who totally rejected the idea of reparations was former pro-football player, Owen Burgess, who identified as a Democrat-turned-Republican. Opined Burgess, who stood as a representative for the Republican party. “I do not believe in reparation[s] because what reparations does is points to a certain race, a certain color and points to them as evil. And points to the other race, my race, as one that . . . not only becomes racist, but also beggars.”

Burgess claimed that “we have a very, very special country that started with the Judeo-Christian values that allowed every single generation to become better than the last.” He went on, “And that has not ended and that has not stopped, until now. We’re telling our kids little bit something different. That they don’t have the opportunities that we had.”

While Burgess disagreed with restorative justice in the form of monetary compensation, he expressed his support of restitution, if it is provided by Democrats. “Let’s point to the party that was part of slavery, KKK, Jim Crow that has killed over 40 percent of our Black babies . . . how about the Democratic party pay for all of the misery brought to my race. And those after we learn our history decide to stay there they should pay also. They’re complicit. And every white American, Republican or Democrat who feels guilty because of their white skin, you should pony up also. ”

Retorting some of Burgess’ remarks, Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), the current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We trivialize reparations by saying that these are just African Americans that wants to be paid,” she responded “ . . . and then frankly when I hear from my colleagues from the other side of the aisle that we need to be encouraged to work harder, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. That we can actually achieve, that that’s the only thing that’s the problem.”

Rep. Bass added. “Black folks fought the Democratic Party. Nobody acts as though the Democratic Party that was a racist party until there was a movement that fought for justice.”

Timing is everything

Malveaux called upon the urgency of addressing issues in her testimony. “This hearing is not on time, it’s overtime. It’s more than time for us to deal with the injustices that African American people, not only have experienced in history, but continue to experience.”

For Eric Miller, time needs to be addressed from a legal perspective when exploring reparations. Miller is a law professor who joined a group of lawyers in 2003 to sue the state of Oklahoma for the massacre of African Americans and their Greenwood community in Tulsa in 1921, known as Black Wall Street.

Black Wall Street massacre also known as the Tulsa Riots of 1921. Black men arrested by white mobs. 35 blocks of homes in the African American section of Tulsa were destroyed.

Miller said that his work on the legal team, led by law professor and activist, Charles James Ogletree, showed that “[removing] time limited bans against litigation . . . is the major impediment presenting identifiable victims of extraordinary race-targeted state action to sue state and federal governments for financial damage” should be considered as a specific legal remedy.

His work with Black Wall Street survivors shored up the reality that African American “social, cultural, economic and political infrastructure of communities [were] destroyed by the state and federal governments.”

Also, Miller insisted that “economic justice is not enough without racial justice” and “race neutral programs of economic uplift will preserve the relative social and political disadvantage, domination and disempowerment of African Americans across the nation.”

Although the hearing showed a divided house on how and where to start on reparations, most say a study is needed.

Rep. Jackson-Lee took over as first sponsor of H.R. 40 when the original backer, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) stepped down in 2017. She said at the hearing, “I am honored to have been given the opportunity to lead this bill. John Conyers said to move on and to lead on and for us to take this forward.”

Watch the full House hearing on reparations

Kaia Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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