A House committee voted on Wednesday to recommend for the first time the creation of a commission to consider providing Black Americans with reparations for slavery in the United States and a “national apology” for centuries of discrimination. It comes three decades after the measure was first introduced and a century and a half after the end of slavery.
The vote by the House Judiciary Committee was a major milestone for proponents of reparations, who have labored for decades to build mainstream support for redressing the lingering effects of slavery. Democrats on the panel advanced the legislation establishing the commission over Republican objections, 25 to 17.
The bill — labeled H.R. 40 after the unfulfilled Civil War-era promise to give former slaves “40 acres and a mule” — still faces an uphill path. With opposition from some Democrats and unified Republicans, who argue that Black Americans do not need a government handout for long-ago crimes, neither chamber of Congress has committed to a floor vote.
But as the country grapples anew with systemic racism, the bill now counts support from the president of the United States and key congressional leaders.
“We’re asking for people to understand the pain, the violence, the brutality, the chattel-ness of what we went through,” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, said during a nighttime committee debate. “And of course, we’re asking for harmony, reconciliation, reason to come together as Americans.”
The renewed interest in reparations comes as Mr. Biden has positioned addressing racial inequities at the center of his domestic policy agenda, proposing billions of dollars in investments in Black farmers, business owners, neighborhoods, students and the poor. The White House has said Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion jobs agenda aims, in part, to “tackle systemic racism and rebuild our economy and our social safety net so that every person in America can reach their full potential.”
Proponents of reparations differ on what form, precisely, they should take, though many agree that Mr. Biden’s proposals encompass the kinds of compensation that might be considered the modern-day equivalent of 40 acres and a mule. But that does not mean they are a replacement, they say.
“If this is about the full ramifications on Black wealth, about the destruction of entire businesses or neighborhoods, or the deprivation and loss of land, then we are talking about numbers that are far beyond the reach of what are relatively small programmatic initiatives,” said William A. Darity Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University who has written a book on reparations.
Mr. Darity’s vision of reparations primarily focuses on closing the wealth gap between African-Americans and white people, something that he estimates would take $10 trillion or more in government funds.
The bill before the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday would establish a body to study the effects of slavery and the decades of economic and social discrimination that followed, often with government involvement, and propose possible ways to address the yawning gap in wealth and opportunity between Black and white Americans. It would also consider a “national apology” for the harm caused by slavery.
Opponents of reparations often argue that the wrongs of slavery are simply too far past and too diffuse to be practically addressed now. They question why taxpayers, many of whom came to the United States long after slavery ended, should foot a potentially large bill for payments or other forms of compensation to Black Americans.
Roy L. Brooks, a law professor at the University of San Diego who has also written on the issue, argues that the purpose of reparations should not be viewed as primarily monetary nor something that can be dealt with in the course of normal policymaking, no matter how effective.
“The purpose has to be bringing about racial reconciliation, and it can’t get swallowed up in generic domestic legislation, or else the significance is lost,” he said.
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