“Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hollow principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all regardless of color, but America had other principles in mind.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered these words passionately on Wednesday at the first congressional hearing about reparations in 12 years. Alongside actor and activist Danny Glover, Senator Cory Booker, and others, he took the stand in support of H.R. 40, The Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act. The bill, which has been introduced in Congress every year since 1989, has never been voted on, and hasn’t been addressed in a similar congressional forum since 2007.
The bill does not guarantee reparations, but would “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery [...] and the impact of these forces on living African Americans to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”
Senator Cory Booker introduced the bill, which is sponsored by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, by saying that he was “broken-hearted and very angry” that little has been done to fix the inumerable injustices against his community in the decades since slavery. He insisted that the reparations bill would benefit all Americans, not Black people alone.
This year, multiple Democratic presidential candidates, in addition to Booker, have come out in support of H.R. 40 for the first time, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O'Rourke. Joe Biden’s campaign manager told VICE that Biden “believes that we should gather the data necessary to have an informed conversation about reparations, but he has not endorsed a specific bill.”
In his first address this morning, Coates—who became a leading voice in the national conversation on reparations after the Atlantic published his landmark essay, “The Case for Reparations,” in 2014—reminded the committee that government-sanctioned systemic racism did not end with slavery.
Coates also took some time to address Mitch McConnell, who has said that “none of us currently living are responsible" for slavery or its effects because we were not alive when it happened. “Mr. Mconnell was not alive for [the battle of] Appomattox, but he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney; he was alive for the blinding of Issac Woodard; he was alive to witness the kleptocracy in his native Alabama, and a regime premised on electoral theft,” he said. Stinney, a 14-year-old Black boy who died by electrocution as punishment after an unfair trial convicted him of murdering two white girls, and Woodard, the victim of a hate crime that left him blind, have become symbols of the devastating longterm effects of slavery even decades after it ended.
Actor and activist Danny Glover also spoke, quoting James Baldwin to demand that the U.S. finally reckon with its history.
Longtime civil rights advocate Rt. Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton explained that the circumstances facing many Black people today are not based on their individual choices, but systems and institutions actively working against them.
“This hearing is not on time, it’s overtime,” said economist Julianne Malveaux before explaining the economic strategy of slavery, which allowed many Black people to suffer while white people thrived long after slavery ended. As a result, she explained, poverty can only be remedied by addressing racism, which is exactly what reparations aim to do.
Congresswoman Karen Bass called out the shame in trying to justify systemic inequalities in this country, and warned that avoiding conversations about race will have devastating effects.
At the end of the hearing, in response to a question about how faith played into the debate on reparations, Rt. Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton responded, in part, with his own question: “What does that do to your soul—to know that some of the benefit that you get from your white skin and background is not accrued to everybody?”
Gifs by Mary Retta