With Historic Vote, House Judiciary Advances Slavery-Reparations Bill

A House committee voted to advance a bill that would create a commission to study the effects of slavery in the United States and the possibility of paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved people.

This vote marks the first time the bill, H.R. 40, has made it out of the Judiciary Committee since it was originally introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in 1989. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) has reintroduced the bill each Congress since his retirement in 2017 and called the bill a “major step” on the “path to restorative justice.”

“Here we are today, marking up for the first time in the history of the United States of America any legislation that deals directly with the years and centuries of slavery of African American people who are now the descendants of those Africans,” Jackson Lee said Wednesday.

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As the hearing went late into the night, lawmakers on the committee debated the bill before voting along party lines, 25 Democrats to 17 Republicans, to advance it. During the discussion, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) explained why reparations are necessary.

“We’re not gonna move on because after slavery, Jim Crow and the rise of the KKK,” Jeffries said. “And the lynching epidemic. And Plessy vs. Ferguson. And Black Wall Street in 1921 destroyed. And why? Because Black prosperity was viewed as a threat to White supremacy. So no, we are not simply going to move on.”

Jeffries went on to describe how black Americans also have historically been excluded from receiving aid during the Great Depression and from receiving their full military benefits, unemployment, social security, and federally subsidized home loans as White Americans. “The least we can do is study these historic wrongs,” he concluded. “That’s the least that this Congress can do.”

Republican lawmakers did not support the bill. Republican Rep. Burgess Owens (Utah), one of two Black Republicans in the House, objected to the idea of the commission, saying, “If you want to pay back the African American community, give us back our history. We are not a hapless, hopeless race. We’re just like everybody else.”

And ranking Republican Jim Jordan (Ohio) said of the bill, “Spending $20 million in taxpayer money to reach a conclusion you already know what it’s going to be. Look, everyone knows how evil slavery was, wrong as wrong can be. But this is not something we should be passing.” (Jordan in 2017 voted for $1.5 trillion in tax cuts that were heavily weighted toward corporations and the wealthy.)

During the hearing, Rep. Cory Bush responded to her Republican colleagues’ objections. “To the Republicans who are against this legislation, how dare you,” she said. “How dare your nearly all-White panel put so much energy and abuse your power to deny justice for the descendants of one the most egregious atrocities in the history of the world. You have no idea what that’s like… But the least that you can do is support research.”

Jackson Lee told CBS News she is hoping for a floor vote in the House sometime in the summer. President Biden has said in the past that he supports the bill, and while she was in the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris endorsed it. But to become law, the bill would need to get through the Senate, where it would most likely be blocked by a GOP filibuster.

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