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June 19, 2019

The Root: ‘An Idea Whose Time Has Come’: Congress Hears the Case for Reparations on Juneteenth

The contributions of African Americans to this country—and the matter of what the federal government still owes them for those contributions—will take center stage on Capitol Hill today as the House hears H.R. 40, a bill that proposes a commission on reparations be formed.

“We know that it’s not just white men that built build this country. In fact, we know that black Americans built it for free,” Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said in a video marking the occasion. Pressley, a co-sponsor of H.R. 40, also noted the significance of the hearing’s date: Juneteenth.

“It’s an opportunity for us to come together to celebrate black pride, black resilience, and yes, black freedom,” Pressley said. “But we know that we have yet to enjoy the full measure of freedom as black Americans.”

Juneteenth marks the day slavery was formally abolished in Texas in 1865—more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered. With the abolition of slavery in Texas, the last enslaved black people in the U.S. were finally freed. But the matter of what descendants of those slaves are owed, as well as black people descended from the slave trade at large, has never been resolved, or even studied in earnest by the federal government.

H.R. 40, brought forward by Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, calls for a commission to “study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans.” It also calls for a formal apology from the U.S. government “for the perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants,” NPR reports.

Speaking before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will be Ta-Nehisi Coates, author and former Atlantic writer whose article, “The Case for Reparations” re-centered the topic in the American mainstream. Joining him on today’s list of speakers will be Sen. Cory Booker, actor Danny Glover, and legal experts, civil rights advocates, and economists who have been examining the issue of reparations for decades.

Among them is Dr. Julianne Malveaux, an economist and former president of Bennett College, who has studied economic gaps between racial groups, particularly the wealth gap, for nearly 40 years.

“It’s an idea whose time has come,” Malveaux, told The Root. She noted that the wealth gap between black and white Americans hasn’t diminished over the years—in fact, studies show it’s gotten worse. And though Donald Trump’s presidency has helped to galvanize some of these conversations around racial equity, she added that the work around studying reparations has been done for many years through organizations like the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations (NCOBRA).

Even H.R. 40 isn’t new. Former Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan originally proposed a commission to study reparations in 1989, presenting it in every subsequent session until he resigned in 2017.

But in 2019, reparations is now being addressed by Democratic presidential candidates, and H.R. 40 not only has the support of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, it has a companion bill in the Senate. While Malveaux says that’s important, her focus on Wednesday will be impressing upon the Judiciary subcommittee an appreciation for the history and contributions of black Americans, and a careful consideration of how to restore a community that has been under siege for centuries.

“Black labor is the foundational factor of the growth of this nation,” she said, adding that despite this fact, black Americans were not allowed to fully participate in America’s economic growth.

“We were not allowed to accumulate as others did, and we had to resist racist public policy,” Malveaux said. “And all of those things are legacies.”

Malveaux also noted that she wanted to push past the idea that reparations was simply about cutting checks. While targeted economic compensation could be part of the conversation, there are myriad ways to help the black community heal, she said, listing investment in historically black colleges and universities and black businesses as other possible components of a comprehensive reparations proposal.

To her, the point of reparations is as much about community repair as it is an honest and, until now, unprecedented accounting of the state-sanctioned violence black people confronted in simply trying to be equal citizens of this country, both during and after slavery. Whether it was federal and state governments allowing mobs to destroy black businesses and communities when they got too powerful, as was the case in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Wilmington, North Carolina; black people being run off their homes and their land; or decades of redlining and predatory lending to black homeowners, the government either allowed or actively engaged in behavior that suppressed black wealth.

As such, the government must now be part of the solution, proponents of reparations argue.

Malveaux hopes today’s hearing sparks broader conversations from other revered American institutions and businesses about what obligations they have to the black labor that helped build them. She also hopes young black Americans are able to frame the conversation of reparations correctly.

“People want to make us black people out like we always have our hand out,” Malveaux said. “We are philanthropists, because we gave this nation our labor, our blood, sweat, and tears.