Congress’ first hearing in a decade on the topic comes amid a growing discussion in the Democratic Party on reparations and sets up a potential standoff with Republicans, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently expressing opposition to the idea, according to BBC News.
Actor Danny Glover told the panel that reparations would cure “the damages inflicted by enslavement and forced racial exclusionary policies”.
“A national reparations policy is a moral, democratic and economic imperative,” Mr Glover said.
The debate over reparations catapulted from the campaign trail to Congress on Wednesday as lawmakers heard impassioned testimony for and against the idea of providing compensation for America’s history of slavery and racial discrimination.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, the sponsor of a resolution to study reparations, put a fine point on the discussion: “I just simply ask: Why not and why not now?”
It was Congress’ first hearing on reparations in more than a decade, and came amid a growing conversation both in the Democratic Party and the country at large about lingering racial disparities in the United States.
One of the most striking moments came as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of a widely read 2014 essay making the case for reparations, challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s assertion that no one alive today is responsible for the past treatment of black Americans.
“It’s impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery,” Coates told the House Judiciary panel.
“For a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror,” Coates said. “Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.”
McConnell, R-Ky., said on Tuesday he doesn’t think “reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.”
Wednesday’s hearing coincided with Juneteenth, a cultural holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in the United States, and it attracted a crowd. More than a hundred people were lined up to try and get a seat in the hearing room. Those inside frequently reacted to testimony and comments from members of Congress with cheers and boos.
At one point, an audience member shouted “You lie!” at Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert when he urged that Americans know their history and “not punish people today for the sins of their predecessors in the Democratic Party.”
Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the top Republican on the panel, said he respects the beliefs of those who support reparations. He called America’s history with slavery “regrettable and shameful.”
But he said paying monetary reparations for the “sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago” would be unfair, difficult to carry out in practice and, in his view, likely unconstitutional.
The debate over reparations for black Americans began not long after the end of the Civil War. A resolution to study the issue was first proposed in 1989 by Conyers of Michigan, who put it forward year after year until his retirement in 2017. His portrait hangs in the room where the hearing was held.