Slavery reparations legislation has gotten renewed attention in Washington in the wake of George Floyd's death and amid nationwide demands for racial justice.
The late Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced slavery reparations legislation in the House each session for nearly 30 years to no avail. Now, a year after his death, Conyers' effort to form a commission to study reparations for African-Americans finally has a shot of getting a vote in the House.
Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, took up Conyers' reparations cause after the longtime Detroit lawmaker resigned in 2017. She predicted the legislation would get a vote in the House this year based on the growing support.
"The work on H.R. 40 is very much an active movement, if you will," Jackson Lee said Wednesday in a press conference with the Congressional Black Caucus. "...The leadership in the House and the Senate, Democratic leadership, are certainly supporting this legislation. And we have a commitment for a markup and a commitment for the floor."
H.R. 40 would establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans to put forth recommendations. The bill wouldn't authorize direct cash payments to African-Americans to atone for their ancestors' enslavement, but it would be a first step toward identifying a form of restitution. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
The bill title, H.R. 40, is a reference to the unfilled Union promise in 1865 to freed enslaved people of "40 acres and a mule." Backers of reparations argue that white people built their wealth on the backs of slave labor. Their wealth multiplied and was passed down to generations. Now, they say, the wealth gap between African-Americans and white Americans is so large due to years of systemic racism and discrimination that America has a responsibility to remedy the government-sanctioned disparities.
The legislation now has 135 co-sponsors -- or about 58 percent of the House Democratic caucus. Jackson Lee picked up at least eight new sponsors since Floyd's May 25 death as Americans are paying more attention to longstanding racial disparities and activists are demanding bold reforms, including defunding the police.
H.R. 40 already had a hearing last year on June 19, in honor of the Juneteenth holiday. It was not immediately clear when House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, who signed on as a bill co-sponsor, would schedule a markup of the legislation.
Reparations remain controversial, especially among Republicans. If the legislation makes it out of Democratic-controlled House, it is likely to die in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., previously said: "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."
Still, some people think legislation to study reparations doesn't go far enough.
Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, has pitched a $14 trillion reparations plan that would give $350,000 in direct cash payments over 30 years to an estimated 40 million African-Americans.
In an interview with Fox News, Johnson slammed the Jackson Lee commission proposal as falling short in addressing the wealth gap that dates back to slavery.
"To me, this is rearranging the deck chairs on a racial titanic. It's not going any place," Johnson said.