US Congress in historic vote for slavery reparations bill after 32 years of trying

US Congress in historic vote for slavery reparations bill after 32 years of trying


The US Congress made a historic step towards reparations of Black people when on April 14, 2021 a congressional committee voted on a slavery reparations bill, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in its April report.

The bill was approved, according to online newspaper Politico, which reports, “Wednesday night, the House Judiciary Committee voted to bring HR 40 out of committee – a historic feat not accomplished since the late Representative John Conyers (Democrat-Michigan) first introduced a reparations bill in 1989.”

Politico reports that the legislation, which had been introduced in every Congress since then but never made it past a committee vote until last night, was approved with the support of 25 Democrats over 17 Republicans.

According to HRW report, the House Judiciary Committee had earlier on April 9 announced that the vote on HR 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.

H.R. 40 would establish a federal commission to study the legacy of slavery in the United States and its ongoing harm and develop proposals for redress and repair, including reparations.

HRW says that the bill, which has been introduced at every congressional session since 1989 but has never before reached a committee vote. The committee vote is normally the first step toward passing legislation. The vote comes amid an acceleration in the reparations movement’s success at the state and local levels.

“The centuries-long injustices of slavery and its legacy, fuelling the persistence of racial inequality today, remain largely unaccounted for,” the HRW report quotes its racial justice researcher and advocate Dreisen Heath as saying.

racial justice researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “As states, cities, and other institutions pursue reckonings, Congress should step up to lead the nation in accounting and atoning for the ongoing impact of slavery. The committee vote on HR40 is a crucial step in that direction.”

Last month, the City Council of Evanston, Illinois approved the country’s first reparations programme for Black people, and in 2020 California established its own HR 40-style commission at the state level to study and recommend reparations for Black Californians.

Reparation efforts have also made progress recently in cities such as Providence, Rhode Island; Asheville, North Carolina; Burlington, Vermont; and Amherst, Massachusetts, with bills and grassroots initiatives being considered in many other communities. Religious and other institutions, as well as businesses, have also begun to acknowledge their roles in slavery and to address its continuing harm. 

The Judiciary Committee vote will be the first time that lawmakers cast a ballot to decide whether to bring HR 40 to the full House for consideration. In February, a House Judiciary Subcommittee held a hearing on the reparations bill.

HRW’s Heath testified, imploring Congress to address systemic racism by passing HR 40, rather than perpetuating it by continuing to let the bill languish, the new report says.

The late Congressman John Conyers first introduced HR 40 more than 30 years ago on the heels of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations, including cash payments to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and forcibly relocated during World War II.

However, HR 40 did not gain significant momentum until 2019, when the House held its second congressional hearing on the bill. Then, in 2020, the bill gained unprecedented support as the Covid-19 coronavirus took a disproportionate toll on communities of colour and millions of people took to the streets following the police killing of George Floyd to demand an end to structural racism.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who took over as the bill’s lead sponsor after Conyers’ death in 2019, mobilised support among legislators, an effort backed by a coalition of over 300 groups including the National African American Reparations Commission, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, Colour of Change and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Japanese American internment camp survivors, including former US Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and actor George Takei, voiced their support. The Amalgamated Bank, the US Conference of Mayors, the Players Coalition, and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, among others, have also expressed support.

President Joe Biden recently expressed support for a study of reparations for slavery, which was also a 2020 campaign promise.

HRW said in its testimony to Congress in February that passing HR 40 is essential because the full impact of creating laws and policies that forced hundreds of thousands of Africans to be enslaved in the United States – a gross human rights violation – has never been fully examined, accounted for, or assessed at the national level.

Following emancipation, many US cities and states raced to enforce white supremacy and racial segregation, passing repressive laws to limit Black people’s rights.

Organised racial terror by the Ku Klux Klan, white paramilitary group and deputised white mobs that the authorities often have not done enough to prevent or account for, helped to maintain racial social order and to corrode Black people’s progress toward equality.

Jim Crow laws passed by local and state governments in the 19th and 20th centuries entrenched racial discrimination. Federal, state and local policy decisions in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as redlining, urban renewal and highway construction, further contributed to structural racism.

And these policies helped create present day economic, education, employment and health inequalities, as well as housing segregation and everyday abusive policing practices in Black and brown communities.

To date, 175 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of HR 40, many more than in previous years. Its Senate companion, S-40, the first reparations bill to be introduced in the Senate since Reconstruction, has 19 co-sponsors.

“The Judiciary Committee should seize this moment and vote to move HR 40 to the House floor for full consideration,” Heath said.

“Racial justice and racial healing can only be achieved if the US finally reckons with its racist past and present and takes steps to provide genuine, meaningful repair.”

  • A Tell report
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