On Wednesday (June 19), lawmakers held the first congressional hearing in more than a decade on reparations for slavery.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, actor and activist Danny Glover, Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, among others, spoke in support of H.R. 40, the "Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act," which doesn’t allocate funds for reparations but would set up a committee to find ways to do so.
First up was Coates, who, in 2014, published an essay in The Atlantic magazine titled “The Case for Reparations.” He spoke eloquently about the stains slavery left on reconstruction, the Jim Crow south, and its cause of current day mass incarceration, among other systemic inequalities in American society today.
“The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress but is also a question of citizenship,” He said. Coates also argued Black people don’t need “another apology,” but rather better schools, safer neighborhoods, better health care and a far less punitive criminal justice system.
Next up was Danny Glover, who employed a lot of his own experience in his testimony and reminded the committee that he is just a few generations removed from slavery.
"I sit here as the great-grandson of a former slave, Mary Brown, who was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863," Glover said. "I had the fortune of meeting her as a small child."
He then continued by discussing a need for change. "The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo," Glover said.
Jackson Lee, who became the sponsor of a measure to study reparations after the retirement of Representative John Conyers, said Black Americans “are the only group that can singularly claim to have been slaves under the auspices of the United States government” and that "slavery is the original sin. Slavery has never received an apology."
Jackson Lee also added that "Black people in America are the descendants of Africans kidnapped and transported to the United States" under the guise of the federal government as was the case with segregation. Furthermore, Jackson Lee said it’s up to the federal government to provide reparations to atone.
Senator Cory Booker, who is currently running for the Democratic nomination for president, says the United States has “yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country’s founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality.
“The stain of slavery was not just inked in bloodshed,” he continued. “But in policies that have disadvantaged African-Americans for generations.”
In a 2016 Point Taken-Marist poll, 68 percent of Americans said the country should not pay cash reparations to African-American descendants of slaves. Nearly eight in 10 white Americans opposed reparations in the poll, while six in 10 Black Americans were in favor.
The hearing comes in the wake of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Tuesday statement during which he opposed reparations, telling reporters: “I don’t want reparations for something that happened 150 years ago. We’ve tried to deal with the original sin of slavery by passing civil rights legislation,” and inferring that racism is largely a thing of the past because the American public elected an African-American president in Barack Obama.
“It would be hard to figure out who to compensate [for slavery],” he added: “No one currently alive was responsible for that.”
Watch a full stream of the reparations hearings below.
Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call