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What you need to know about reparations as the first congressional hearing convenes on the topic in decades

Valerie Russ, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, the Democratic presidential candidate from New Jersey, appeared Wednesday at the first congressional hearing on reparations in more than a decade. Along with actor Danny Glover, economist Julianne Malveaux, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and others, Booker testified on H.R. 40, introduced in 1989, by former U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the Democrat from Michigan. After Conyers resigned in 2017, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, picked up the practice of introducing the bill at every new session of Congress.

After decades of being mostly ignored, reparations are being taken seriously among many Democratic candidates in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential campaign. Booker, who introduced the first-ever Senate companion bill to H.R. 40 in April, said during his testimony that the U.S 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 Philadelphia Inquirer talked to historians, economists and activists about the history of the quest for reparations.

-- What are reparations?

Reparations are a process of making amends, or repairing and atoning, for damages done because of an injustice, such as the enslavement of people, the internment of Japanese Americans or the murders of Jews during the Holocaust. There are stages of reparation, where the first step may be to acknowledge the wrongdoing. That may be accompanied by a formal apology. Then there may be efforts to provide compensation -- maybe by the granting of land, or in the cases of universities such as Georgetown, apologizing for their roles in the slave trade, or offering descendants of slavery admissions preference or creating a fund to assist them.

"It's high time for a commission on reparations," said Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Black people were always demanding some kind of recompense for unpaid labor, but they didn't succeed. Reparations were given to white slave owners during the Civil War when slaves were let go to fight in the Union Army. We have given the slave owners money, but not the former slaves."


-- What exactly is H.R. 40 calling for?

H.R. 40 would authorize $12 million to create a 13-member commission to study reparations and the impact of slavery on African American descendants, and recommend "appropriate remedies" to Congress."

Conyers first proposed his "Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act" as H.R. 3745 in 1989. In 1997, he renamed the bill H.R. 40, as a symbol of the 40 acres and a mule the United States had once promised freed slaves.

The Wednesday hearing is before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. The bill is now called the "Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act."


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