WASHINGTON — The House held a hearing on reparations for the descendants of enslaved people Wednesday, corresponding with Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
The hearing, which featured testimony from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sen. Cory Booker, and actor Danny Glover, focused on a bill that would create a commission to study what reparations should be given to the descendants of people who were enslaved in the United States.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a sponsor of that legislation, said in the committee meeting that restitution efforts are “long overdue,” and talked about how black people have an unemployment rate double the national average and black children are more likely than their white peers to live in poverty.
Jackson Lee told reporters she was “more than pleased” with the hearing and that she hopes people will watch it and see that there was passion, but also dignity and respect, noting the comments of two Republican witnesses who spoke against the bill. “I think that they were appropriate in their own views, indicated that we as a people, African Americans, come in all forms of chocolate. There are all forms of opinions,” Jackson Lee said.
The Texas Democrat said she hopes to move the legislation forward to the House floor. There’s no guarantee that the bill will get a vote in the House, however, and it faces slim odds in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he opposes reparations.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” he said. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president."
Jackson Lee responded Wednesday that while she is grateful to have had a black president, currently there is a rise in white nationalism and Nazism.
Coates, author of “The Case for Reparations,” also responded to McConnell Wednesday. "For a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell,” Coates told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
In his testimony in favor of reparations, Coates said enslavement "shaped America."
”A nation is both its credits and its debts. And if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. If Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. The question really is not whether we will be tied to the 'some things' of our past but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them,” Coates said.
Booker, who is running for president, also spoke in favor of the bill, calling it historic and urgent. He is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. Booker noted that seven black men were shot in his neighborhood Tuesday night, remarking that the response would have been very different in other neighborhoods.
“I look at communities like mine, and you could literally see how communities were designed to be segregated, designed based upon enforcing institutional racism and inequities,” Booker said.
Freelance journalist Coleman Hughes spoke against reparations, saying the desire to fix the past could be compromising the need to fix what is happening now. "Black people don’t need another apology. We need safer neighbors and better schools," he said.
Wednesday’s hearing comes as several Democratic candidates for president have come out in favor of Jackson Lee’s bill to study reparations.