For more than 30 years, Black members of Congress have been trying to get H.R. 40 reparations legislation to pass that will create a commission to study slavery and submit reparations proposals.
Only recently, in 2019 and 2020 – likely aided by unprecedented racial justice protests in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer – has the bill started receiving any meaningful traction. In April, a House committee finally approved the bill to advance to the floor for a full House vote.
That hasn’t happened.
Some are saying there is hesitancy because Democrats are scared to advance the legislation before the midterm elections, fearing it will harm their chances to maintain a slim majority, NPR reported.
“Since April there has been very little movement on the bill by the leadership in Congress,” said Kamm Howard, a national co-chair of N’COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. “The Democratic leaders are saying that they are scared if they move this legislation today, that it will hurt their chances of keeping control of the Congress.”
However, political experts and activists say President Joe Biden doesn’t need Congress to create the H.R. 40 Commission. POTUS has the authority to do so with a stroke of his pen, said N’COBRA member Rev. Mark Thompson.
“What sets H.R. 40 apart from all of those other pieces of legislation that ‘Manchinema’ are blocking, is this,” Thompson said, using a hybrid name to collectively describe moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have blocked other popular legislation. “H.R 40 is the only one … that Biden can sign and enact by executive order.”
Fellow reparations activists agree with Rev. Thompson and they’re calling for a meeting with President Biden.
“We are working diligently to basically get them all in a room with us and tell us directly how we can move this bill forward,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery of Human Rights Watch, one of the advocates calling for a meeting with House leaders. “They have the power to do it, and we’re imploring them to do so.”
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H.R. 40 was originally introduced in 1989 by late Sen. John Conyers, who continued to introduce the bill year after year. Once he retired in 2017, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee took over as the bill’s sponsor.
It’s time for America to do the right thing by Black Americans for the harm it has inflicted on them and their ancestors through slavery, systemic racism and oppression, Rep. Jackson Lee said.
“I don’t think anyone could argue against the fact that the trajectory of slavery has gone through the centuries, the decades, and is in the DNA of descendants of enslaved Africans,” Jackson Lee said. “America would do well to try to bring healing and repair in this time and in this century.”
To those who oppose the bill, Jackson Lee said they misunderstand its intent if they think it will just automatically mean all Black American descendants of slavery will receive a check.
“It is not the study of getting a check. It is not giving you a check. It is not the bill on a check,” Jackson Lee said. “It is to study slavery and develop reparations proposals, which would create, first of all, the platform for understanding.”
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