How Would Paying Reparations Work? 3 Things To Learn From Congress' Juneteenth Hearing

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On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on paying reparations — the first one to take place in over a decade, according to The Washington Post. During the hearing, guest speakers and members of Congress debated the importance and logistics of providing reparations to Black Americans, in light of hundreds of years of enslavement, marginalization, and institutionalized racism.

Although many people used to consider the idea to be a radical concept, the idea of reparations has gained traction in recent years. That said, it can be a tricky notion to pin down. One reason for that is that even people who support reparations don't necessarily agree about the best way for them to take place. Another reason is that those who oppose them tend to do so broadly — rejecting the idea in concept rather than in practice.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the U.S. was beyond the point where reparations remain feasible or necessary.

"I don't think that reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea," he told reporters on Tuesday, per CBS News. "We 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."

Speakers during the hearing included presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and actor Danny Glover, all of whom support reparations in some form or another. Wednesday's hearing offered an opportunity for the American public to learn about reparations — both broadly and in detail.

Reparations Go Well Beyond Slavery

Conversations about reparations often center around compensating — in some way — descendants of U.S. slaves. Proponents say those families have suffered immense multigenerational trauma only to face systemic racism for generations thereafter.

During his remarks, Coates said that arguments like McConnell's, which highlight the fact that slavery officially ended more than a century ago, miss the point. Black Americans, he said, didn't stop facing problems when slavery was outlawed.

“For a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror,” Coates said, according to video from the hearing. “A campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”

Coates pointed to Jim Crow laws, as well as a series of incidents wherein Black Americans were victimized by the legal system — all while McConnell was alive.

"Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them,” Coates said. “He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion.”

How Paying Reparations Could Work

A popularly proposed form of reparations includes paying out descendants of American slaves, either in a lump sum, or over time. The idea is far from unheard of. According to The New York Times, Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars out to Jewish victims from the World War II era, for example. Victims of U.S. Japanese internment camps received over $20,000 in reparations following a congressional study, the paper reports.

But reparations money doesn't always necessarily have to go directly to private individuals. "I think one of the big strikes of ignorance that he said there is that somehow this is about a compensation," Booker said on Wednesday, The Washington Post reports. "In other words, writing a check to somebody, and reducing the urgency of this conversation to simply that. That alone is problematic."

The Times reports that reparation in Germany are also funneled into research efforts, grants, and housing for elder populations affected by the Nazi regime. Booker, CBS news reports, is sponsoring a bill that would give every baby in America a $1,000 savings bond at birth, though the proposal would not specifically target Black populations.

That said, Coates is among those who strongly believes that reparations should include some direct compensation.

Congress Still Hasn't Studied Reparations For Black Americans

In January, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced H.R. 40, Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, a bill that would do exactly what its name says — establish a commission to study and develop reparation plans.

“HR 40 is, in fact, the response of the United States of America long overdue," Jackson Lee said during Wednesday's hearing, the Texas Standard reports. "Slavery is the original sin. Slavery has never received an apology."

But, the thing about H.R. 40 is that it's not a new initiative. CBS News reports that it was first introduced by former Rep. John Conyers back in 1989, and never moved forward. But on Wednesday, Politico reports, Congressional Democrats committed to giving the bill a vote.

Since McConnell opposes the idea of reparations, it's unlikely that the Senate will ever put such an idea before the whole chamber. But, that doesn't mean reparations will never win congressional favor, overall. Wednesday's hearing alone indicates that the tides are changing, and that more and more people are increasingly open to the idea of reparations, in general.