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Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee speaks during the funeral for George Floyd on June 9, 2020, in Houston. Jackson Lee is the sponsor of the House bill on reparations. (AP Photo) Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee speaks during the funeral for George Floyd on June 9, 2020, in Houston. Jackson Lee is the sponsor of the House bill on reparations. (AP Photo)

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee speaks during the funeral for George Floyd on June 9, 2020, in Houston. Jackson Lee is the sponsor of the House bill on reparations. (AP Photo)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman June 18, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • Since 1989, Democrats have introduced bills that call for studying reparations for African Americans.

  • The idea for reparations has gained momentum following George Floyd’s death in May.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden supports studying reparations but hasn’t committed to paying reparations. President Donald Trump opposed the idea in 2019.

The latest outpouring of anger and frustration about centuries of systemic racism has renewed calls for reparations for African Americans.

House Democrats have introduced bills since 1989 to develop proposals for reparations. But those efforts languished. 

Now, supporters of reparations are optimistic about new awareness since the nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.

"This right now is the most attention we’ve ever had in American history on the issue," said Justin Hansford, a Howard University law professor.

The goal of reparations is to acknowledge the nation’s history of white supremacy, the legacy of slavery and their continuing impact on African Americans in all aspects of society, said Kristen Clarke, president of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. 

In Congress, legislation to establish a commission to study reparations is on the table: 

The legislation calls for a major study of reparations, but anticipates that if enacted, reparations would likely include a formal apology for America’s history of slavery, as well as compensation to descendants of slaves.

William Darity Jr., a professor of public policy and African American studies at Duke University, testified before a House committee in June 2019 about reparations. 

"The protests galvanized by George Floyd’s murder have activated a discussion of many measures to promote racial justice including reparations for Black American descendants of U.S. slavery," Darity told PolitiFact. 

Historical efforts to make reparations

The first federal call for reparations came during the waning months of the Civil War. Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered that formerly enslaved families should get plots of 40 acres along with mules. 

But after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman’s order. The phrase "40 acres and a mule" would later become a symbol of the nation’s unfulfilled promise. 

Over the next century, many activists called for reparations, including Callie House, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X

In 1989, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced a bill to create a commission to study reparations. The bill called for the commission to recommend remedies and consider whether compensation was warranted. The idea for reparations drew more attention following author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 essay in The Atlantic

After Conyers retired in 2017, Jackson Lee took over the effort. House Resolution 40 lays out the case for reparations, saying that some 4 million Africans and their descendants were enslaved from the time of the American colonies until the end of the Civil War in 1865, and that discrimination continued in various forms for generations.

After slavery ended, the bill says, the government perpetuated practices that disadvantaged African Americans, including "sharecropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow, redlining, unequal education, and disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system."

As a result, the bill says, African Americans "continue to suffer debilitating economic, educational, and health hardships," including higher unemployment and less wealth than whites.

Bill would set up a commission to consider remedies

If the bill is enacted, a commission comprising 13 members would be appointed within 90 days.

The president and House speaker would each appoint three members, with the Senate president pro tempore appointing another. The other six members would be selected by organizations that have historically championed reparations.

The major questions the commission would pursue center on the history of American slavery, the government’s role in discrimination and a redress for past injustices. The commission would hold hearings, gather documents and bring on experts to create a report.

This process would culminate with the commission recommending "appropriate remedies" as part of a report to Congress due within a year, the bill states. H.R. 40 would authorize $12 million to set up the study commission. It’s silent as to how any reparations would be financed.

Increased calls for reparations amid the protests in 2020

A series of events this year have fueled demands that Congress take steps to address racism, including the death of Floyd, the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of Breonna Taylor, an African American woman who was shot in her home while Louisville police executed a search warrant.

In June, Robert Johnson, who became America’s first Black billionaire when he sold BET to Viacom, called for $14 trillion in reparations based on $357,000 for each of 40 million African Americans. 

"Now is the time to go big," to keep America from dividing into two separate and unequal societies, Johnson said on CNBC.

"Wealth transfer is exactly what’s needed," he argued. "Think about this. For 200-plus years or so of slavery, labor taken with no compensation is a wealth transfer. Denial of access to education, which is a primary driver of accumulation of income and wealth, is a wealth transfer."

There are historical precedents for reparations, including in Germany for victims of the Holocaust and in the U.S. for Japanese Americans who were interned in World War II, noted Duke University professor William Darity and his co-author, writer A. Kirsten Mullen, in a June report calling for reparations to individuals. 

The writers called for reparations in the form of money to eliminate the Black-white wealth gap, which they called "the most glaring indicator of racial injustice in America."

While many proposals for reparations are focused on payments to individuals, another way to achieve reparations would be to provide money to Black institutions including universities, churches and hospitals serving Black communities.

Impact on the presidential race in 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign plan for Black America calls for a study on reparations, but he hasn’t committed to supporting monetary reparations.

During an NAACP town hall in June, moderator Ed Gordon asked Biden about that: "If in fact a calculation comes to you that you are satisfied with, would you then say, ‘I am for reparations?’"

Biden replied that it "depends upon what it was, and will it include Native Americans as well."

The White House did not respond to our question about Trump’s position on reparations. (The campaign deferred to the White House.) But in June 2019, after a House hearing on reparations, The Hill asked Trump for his opinion. 

 "It’s been a very interesting debate," Trump said. "I don’t see it happening, no."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also rejected the idea in 2019.

"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," McConnell said. "We've tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president." 

Polls in 2019 showed that a majority of Americans oppose reparations, including most white Americans, while a majority of African Americans supported the idea.

Discussion of reparations has come up in every Democratic presidential race since 2008. In that year, candidate Barack Obama opposed reparations, arguing that the best way to amend for the past was to focus on the present and future, including school funding. 

In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Hillary Clinton called for improving education, providing jobs and addressing poverty in lieu of reparations. 

But during the 2020 primary, many of the candidates called for studying reparations, including Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, two of Biden’s potential vice presidential picks. 

Booker, one of the 2020 presidential candidates, filed a reparations bill in the Senate in April 2019, and Harris signed on as a co-sponsor in May 2019, along with Sens. Warren, Sanders and Amy Klobuchar.

Harris told NPR shortly before Booker’s bill was filed, "I think that the term ‘reparations’ means different things to different people. But what I mean by it is that we need to study the effects of generations of discrimination and institutional racism and determine what can be done, in terms of intervention, to correct course."

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Our Sources

Congress.gov, H.R.40 - Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, 2019

Congress.gov, S.1083 - H.R. 40 Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, 2019

Professor William Darity Jr., The case for reparations, September 2019

William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, Resurrecting the promise of 40 acres, June 2020

Cal Matters, What happens after George Floyd? California looks to reparations, June 1, 2020

Washington Informer, Bob Johnson Calls for $14 Trillion in Reparations, June 10, 2020

Wall Street Journal op ed by Arif Hyder Ali, International Law Demands Reparations for American Slavery, June 9, 2020

Thai Jones op-ed in the Washington Post, Slavery reparations seem impossible. In many places, they’re already happening. Jan. 31, 2020

Washington Post, Questionnaire to primary candidates, 2020

Bloomberg TV, Interview with Bob Johnson, June 3, 2020

CNN, Democratic lawmakers call for vote on bill to study reparations, June 10, 2020

The Hill, Democrats seek to tap into fury over George Floyd, June 7, 2020

CNBC, BET founder Robert Johnson calls for $14 trillion of reparations for slavery, June 1, 2020

Congressional Black Caucus, Fact sheet: Justice in Policing Act, June 2020

NAACP, Town hall with Joe Biden, June 2020

Joe Biden, Plan for Black America, 2020

Sen. Tim Kaine, Kaine Cosponsors Reforms To Address Racial Inequality & Injustice, June 9, 2020

New York Times, Here’s What You Need to Know About Breonna Taylor’s Death, June 5, 2020

Black Enterprise, 45 great moments in black business, Aug. 12, 2018

The Hill, Pelosi says she supports bill to study issue of reparations for slavery, Feb. 27, 2019

Columbus Dispatch, Capitol Insider | Ohio Democrats in Congress favor study of slavery reparations, June 23, 2019

National Archives, No Pensions for Ex-Slaves, Summer 2010

Michigan State University, Malcolm presents the Nation of Islam call for reparations. Jan. 23, 1963

NPR, Sen. Kamala Harris On Reparations, March 14, 2019

PolitiFact, What does it mean when Democrats say they support reparations? April 17, 2019

Email interview, Remmington Belford, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee spokesman, June 16, 2020

Email interview, William Darity Jr., Duke University professor of public policy and African American studies, June 16, 2020

Telephone interview, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, June 16, 2020

Telephone interview, Justin Hansford, Howard University law professor and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, June 16, 2020

Telephone interview, Mike Gwin, former Vice President Joe Biden spokesman, June 16, 2020

Email interview, David Popp, Sen. Mitch McConnell spokesman, June 17, 2020

Email interview, Drew Hammill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spokesman, June 15, 2020

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