Democrats, with control of the majority, passed the bill without any GOP support.
The bill, H.R. 40, is named after the unkept promise to provide freed slaves “40 acres and a mule.” It has 175 Democratic co-sponsors in the House, representing the majority of the entire caucus. The measure would create a 13-member commission that would study the impact of slavery and subsequent racial discrimination and whether the government should provide reparations.
“H.R. 40 is intended to begin a national conversation about how to confront the brutal mistreatment of African Americans during chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the enduring structural racism that remains endemic to our society today,” Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat stated.
Bill sponsor Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, pointed out the measure’s focus is on studying the impact of the long-term damage caused by slavery and subsequent discrimination against African Americans.
“Consequently the reparations movement does not focus only on payments, but it focus on remedies that can be created in many forms necessary to adequately address the many kinds of injuries sustained from the chattel slavery and its continuing vestiges,” Lee explained.
While the bill is advanced out of committee, a floor vote remains uncertain.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, would not reveal when, or if, the measure will get a floor vote. Both Hoyer and Speaker Pelosi, a California Democrat, backed the measure.
Hoyer, however, encouraged President Joe Biden to create a commission to study the matter.
“I would hope that the President himself would move ahead with the convening of a commission, a presidential commission, that would look at this issue, and come up with suggestions as to what actions are appropriate and possible to overcome the ordinary extraordinary bad impact of slavery on future generations, including present generations of African Americans,” he suggested.
Republicans widely believe that Democrats are further dividing the nation along racial lines by dragging up the past.
Proponents of the measure believe they can leverage recent civil unrest related to police misconduct as well as opposition to new red-state voter laws and anger over wealth disparities to help push the bill into law. The bill is gaining momentum after remaining mostly dormant since it was introduced more than three decades ago by the late Sen. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.
Democrats said the measure is needed to rectify modern-day disparities in pay, health care, education and housing that negatively impact the African American community.
“These disparities will never be fully addressed until we are able to acknowledge the great historic wrongs committed against African Americans,” Rep. David Cicillini, a Rhode Island Democrat, said. “H.R. 40 provides acknowledgment that a grave sin was committed against Black Americans, a stain on the soul of America.”