The legislation known as H.R. 40- styled after “40 acres and a mule”- and which has come to symbolize the post-Civil War government’s failure to give justice to formerly enslaved people, has resurfaced in the U.S. House of Representatives. The House proposal has been introduced in every Congress for more than three decades and is intended at establishing a commission of experts to study direct reparations paments to African Americans.
The nationwide protests following George Floyd’s killing have raised public awareness of racial injustice and kick-started a national conversation that advocates for a reparations dialogue.
Biden supported the idea of a reparations study during his own 2020 presidential bid but stopped short of fully endorsing the legislation itself. His administration did not testify at a Wednesday hearing in a House Judiciary Committee subpanel on the reparations measure, according to a POLITICO report, with Eugene Daniels as a major contributor.
“It’s working its way through Congress,” Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, told reporters when asked if Biden would sign the bill should it pass. “We’d certainly support a study, but we’ll see what happens through the legislative process.”
“It is clear … that the Democratic Party leadership is in favor of this legislation,” said Kamm Howard, a witness in Wednesday’s hearing and national male co-chair of the National Council of Blacks for Reparations. “The President would have a duty to move the legislation that his party in Congress is favorable to.”
Biden has garnered goodwill from Black activists and social justice advocates for moves early in his presidency that they say signal his commitment to making racial equity work beyond talking points. In that vein, the White House pointed to the president’s early executive action on racial equity as proof of his commitment to addressing systemic racism.
“The President knows that we don’t need a study to take action right now on systemic racism occurring today,” one official said.
Even longtime proponents of reparations payments have acknowledged the challenges to getting the legislation passed. It is sure to face vehement pushback from Republicans in both chambers, dimming its chances given Democrats’ narrow majorities. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly opposed the idea of reparations in 2019, noting that his stance mirrored former President Barack Obama’s.
If the legislation passes, it would create a commission of more than a dozen experts to review the United States government’s role in supporting the enslavement of African Americans from 1619 to 1865 from financial and legal perspectives. It would then recommend to Congress ways to both educate Americans on the legacy of slavery and alleviate its harms.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), lead sponsor of the legislation, touted its growing support at Wednesday’s hearing. But Owens, the ranking member on the Judiciary subpanel and its only Black Republican, opposed the reparations bill as “impractical and a non-starter.”
Owens said he saw reparations as a quasi-socialist redistribution of wealth program and instead proposed changes in education and health care policy with a focus on Black youth. “It is also unfair and heartless to give Black Americans the hope that this is a reality,” Owens continued.
Black Americans comprise 13 percent of the nation’s population but constitute less than 3 percent of its wealth. While advocates for reparations payments sense a new opening during the Biden administration in the face of more overt recent racial injustice, they also have incorporated centuries of systemic inequities against African Americans into their argument to pass the bill. Several cited Jim Crow laws, discriminatory housing practices, and a justice system that has disproportionately impacted Black communities through mass incarceration and police violence.
Even so, H.R. 40’s progress remains in the early stages, and the bill will have to compete for attention with higher-profile proposals that also would help Black communities grappling with systemic economic disadvantage. Chief among them is Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, which includes provisions for minority-owned businesses and health care centers in neighborhoods of color.
Whether or not the bill can get Biden’s endorsement and later signature, reparations experts see the next four years as their best shot at making progress on the issue, either via direct payments or acknowledgment of the legacy of slavery — something the U.S. government has not formally done before.