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Reparations Advocates Organize, Agitate on Capitol Hill

Juneteenth Congressional Hearing Preceded Local Forum, 30th Annual Reparations Convention in Detroit

A high-profile congressional subcommittee hearing on reparations revealed, above all else, that opponents of H.R. 40 haven’t been able to accept empirical evidence proving the devastatingly long-term economic effects of chattel slavery and race-based legislation on the collective well-being of those who descended from enslaved Africans.

On Juneteenth, as the hearing touted as “H.R. 40 and the Path to Restorative Justice,” entered its third hour, Julianne Malveaux, a well-regarded economist and one of more than a half-dozen witnesses testifying before the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, admonished the elected officials who focused more on her fellow panelists’ apprehensions about reparations and anecdotes of individual success more than figures she and Ta-Nehisi Coates, another public witness, brought to the table.

“People talk about racism as if they’re individuals. They’re individuals who are buttressed by the federal government,” Malveaux said to the committee members in response to what she described as her fellow panelists’ lukewarm approach to reparations.

“You can’t fix poverty or inequality unless you deal with racism,” she continued. “It’s about dealing with reparations. I don’t care about a personal check. How about we fully fund our HBCUs? Once upon a time, we had more than 100 Black-owned banks, [but] pernicious legislation helped people lose them. We have to deal with fact. Let’s not forget that race is central to anything we do around economic justice. I’m gratified but frustrated by the tone that some of this has taken, because it has taken us from the economic undertones.”

Other panelists on June 19 included veteran actor and activist Danny Glover, the Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, former NFL player Burgess Owens, conservative African-American columnist Coleman Hughes and white documentary filmmaker Katrina Browne.

The hearing preceded several days of activities centered on securing reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans. On the afternoon of Juneteenth, people gathered at Metropolitan AME Church in Northwest for a forum hosted by the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) and American Civil Liberties Union featuring Malveaux, Glover, attorney Nkechi Taifa, Patricia Newton, Ron Daniels of Institute of the Black World 21st Century, and others.

Days later, reparations advocates converged on the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America’s (NCOBRA) annual conference, themed “400 Years of Terror: A Debt Still Owed.” Given recent developments in the 30-year fight to pass H.R. 40, the recent meetings, as reparations scholar and NCOBRA convention participant Ray Winbush stated on The AllEyesOnDC Show at Sankofa Video Books & Cafe last month, would focus on how best to build on past organizing efforts and further pressure elected officials, particularly the more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates, to usher the passage of laws that would allow descendants of Africans to collectively flourish.

H.R. 40, first introduced by then-Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) in 1989, and reintroduced every year after until Conyer’s retirement from public office in 2017, called for the study of reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans.

The version of H.R. 40 championed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) charges a commission with identifying the public and private sectors’ role in perpetuating structural inequality and crafting policy solutions to address those issues. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), who also testified on Juneteenth, recently introduced accompanying legislation on the Senate side. Both bills, if passed and signed into law, would go beyond a 2009 Senate resolution apologizing for slavery and subsequent racial segregation, what many described as a mere symbolic gesture.

In years past, opponents of reparations have argued that with chattel slavery long abolished, descendants of Africans in the United States had ample opportunity to advance themselves. Scholarship by Coates, Randall Robinson, and others cited laws passed during the Reconstruction Era and long after that allowed politicians and mavens of industry to keep Black people out of an American economic system via land grabs, relegation to low-paying jobs and resource-starved communities, exclusion from banking systems, and domestic terrorism, various forms of which persist to this day.

NAARC’s 10-Point Plan, as mentioned by Malveaux on Juneteenth, demands redress for those manufactured inequities, including the transfer of public land to what’s called the National Reparations Trust Authority, funds for cooperative enterprises and the strengthening of Black-owned medical facilities and networks, construction of affordable housing and preservation of Black monuments, support for educational institutions and communication vehicles, and a revision of the 13th Amendment, a tool used to spur mass incarceration of Black men and women.

Attorney Taifa, founding member of NCOBRA, framed reparations as a necessity for a nation that hasn’t atoned for its injustices against Black people who built it under horrendous circumstances without compensation.

“Reparations is a well-established principle of international law that the United States is very much aware of, and has in fact paid out. It means the act or process of repairing or restoring. It’s payment for injury, redress for wrong done,” she told audience members on June 19 at Metropolitan AME.

“Reparations are due from the U.S. government because it hasn’t taken responsibility for its role in the enslavement and post-slavery segregation for millions. It has never attempted reparations for the extortion of labor for several generations, deprivation of freedom, and terrorism throughout the centuries.”

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