“…a preponderance of scholarly, legal, community evidentiary documentation and popular culture markers constitute the basis for inquiry into the ongoing effects of the basis for inquiry into the ongoing effects of the institution of slavery and its legacy of persistent systemic structures of discrimination on living African-Americans and society in the United States…” – H.R. 40
As he has done for countless years, Rep. John Conyers, the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, has introduced legislation, H.R. 40, calling for the creation of a study commission to research reparations for African-Americans for the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on their lives. Conyers has a number of co-sponsors on the bill, including a sizeable contingent of Congressional Black Caucus members.
Given the election of Donald Trump as president it might seem an inopportune time to introduce legislation seeking a government commission to study reparations. By all indications, the Trump administration and Republican congressional leadership seem tone deaf to the experiences of African-Americans and the challenges facing the Black community. Trump’s underwhelming Executive Order on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and his awkward meeting with Black college presidents in the White House offers little encouragement that H.R. 40 will receive a fair hearing, let alone a favorable response on the Hill. Still, the legislation serves an important role in keeping the experiences of enslaved Africans as part of the national conversation on race and allows for scholarly voices to validate the claims of African-Americans that slavery has present-day effects on the Black experience.
The need to formally study the claim for reparations is evident when incidents like a recent one in a suburban New Jersey school district remind the nation of how much more needs to be done to reconcile the nation’s true history with the generally accepted narrative. In the South Orange Maplewood public school district an elementary school assignment that had students draw posters depicting slave auctions has been widely criticized by parents for lacking the proper context from which students can learn. The display of ‘slave auction’ posters in the school fueled the ire of parents who aren’t against teaching children about American slavery but objected to the lack of guidance, sensitivity and teaching in covering the subject. While the towns of South Orange and Maplewood, in the northern part of the state, are predominantly white, the school district is generally racially mixed and the high school has a majority Black student population. The district and the two communities that share the school system takes great pains in extolling its progressive leanings, seen most recently when Maplewood hung a banner supporting Black Lives Matters across the primary street in its downtown shopping district.
One of the key aspects of H.R. 40 is a mandate to study “the manner in which textual and digital instructional resources are being used to deny the inhumanity of slavery and the crime against humanity of people of African descent in the United States.” The ‘telling of the story’ has dictated public perception regarding reparations and deemed the issue not credible, while forcing the discussion to be primarily within the African-American community with the input of progressive scholars and social justice advocates. One of the arguments used by opponents of reparations is that the past – slavery – cannot be used to compensate African-Americans today who did not suffer themselves. It is a frequent line of attack that attempts to sever the history of African enslavement and Black disfranchisement from the economic and social disadvantages experienced by many African-Americans today. Even among many African-Americans reparations is deemed a pipe dream and not worthy of consideration. Despite these doubts, there is sufficient evidence, even though much documentation of slavery was purposely destroyed, of the many ways current day Blacks have been injured by the practice.
In 2014 author and social commentator Ta-Nehesi Coates penned an article for The Atlantic titled The Case for Reparations that made the case that the nation would never be whole until it reconciled its debt to the descendants of enslaved Africans. Coates brilliantly brought the case for reparations forward to the 21st century and showed how decades after the formal end of slavery, subsequent public policy further compounded the struggle of African-Americans for full recognition as American citizens. The article put the issue of reparations front and center before the American public in a way it hasn’t been in the past. It also changed the conversation from one principally focused on slavery to a more expansive view of the ways in which governments in the United States have been complicit in the oppression of Black people.
The Conyers bill seeks an extensive study of the experiences of African-Americans, from the period during which slavery was introduced in the American colonies to present-day African-Americans. The bill calls for the creation of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations for African-Americans. The legislation does not call for immediate reparations but instead a study examining all facets of the slave trade and how it continues to have implications for African-Americans. Among the issues for the Commission to study, two identified in H.R. 40 provide the bridge from the past to present day.
- The Federal and State laws that discriminated against formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who were deemed United States citizens from 1868 to the present.
- The other forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed African slaves and their descendants who were deemed United States citizens from 1868 to the present, including redlining, educational funding discrepancies, and predatory financial practices.
- The lingering negative effects of the institution of slavery and the discrimination on living African-Americans.
The Commission would have the power to convene hearings and call witnesses to deliver testimony and engage consultants to produce materials deemed important to the discharge of its mandate. It would also have the power to call upon the appropriate federal District Court to subpoena individuals to appear before the Commission or produce documents. One of the most important tools the Commission would have is the authority to seek the assistance of federal agencies with respect to information it might need to fulfill its duties according to the requirements of the authorizing legislation, H.R. 40.
Under the Conyers bill the Commission would be composed of 13 members, with three appointed by the President, three by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, one by the President pro tempore of the Senate, and six slots reserved for representatives from reparations and civil society advocacy organizations. The chairman would be selected from within the members of the Commission. The Commission would be charged with submitting a report of its findings to Congress one year after the date of its first meeting. H.R. 40 calls for an appropriation of $12 million for the Commission. The legislation has been referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice of the House Judiciary Committee.