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Advocates Push for Structural Reforms at House Hearing on Reparations for Slavery and Racial Injustice

"When zip code determines what kind of school you go to, when zip code determines what kind of food you can eat—these are the vestiges of enslavement that people don't want to deal with."

Actor Danny Glover testifies during a hearing on slavery reparations held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on June 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. The subcommittee debated the H.R. 40 bill, which proposes a commission be formed to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Hundreds of people lined up outside a hearing room on Capitol Hill on Wednesday as a House Judiciary subcommittee held the first congressional hearing in more than a decade on reparations for slavery.

The hearing took place on Juneteenth, the day commemorating the abolition of slavery in the United States, and came a day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the idea of providing financial compensation or assistance to the descendants of the millions of black people who were enslaved by white people for 250 years. 

"We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But...he was alive for the redlining of Chicago, and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they'd love a word with the Majority Leader." —Ta-Nehisi Coates, authorSpeaking to reporters Tuesday, McConnell argued that "none us currently living are responsible" for slavery and suggested that the U.S. has already repaired the damage done by slavery and the Jim Crow era because "we elected an African-American president.”

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who published an extensive article in The Atlantic in 2014 making the case for reparations, won applause for his opening testimony at the hearing in which he took aim at McConnell's statement.

"We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox," Coates said. "But...he was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama, and a regime premised on electoral theft... He was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago, and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they'd love a word with the Majority Leader."

Convict leasing, voter suppression, and mass incarceration are all part of a "relentless campaign of terror" perpetrated against black Americans which began in the days of enslavement and continues in various forms in the present day, Coates said.

The hearing was called to discuss H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, which would set up a panel to determine whether reparations could be enacted and how the government would go about compensating or offering resources to black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved.

Coates said at one point during the hearing, "I don't believe we should rule out cutting checks" for direct payments to black families. Some reparations scholars have called for direct payments to an estimated 30 million people with at least one ancestor who was enslaved, while other proposals have focused on enacting structural reforms which would invest money in black communities.  

"When zip code determines what kind of school you go to, when zip code determines what kind of food you can eat—these are the vestiges of enslavement that people don't want to deal with," said Dr. Julianne Malveaux, a labor economist who also testified at the hearing.

"I want y'all congresspeople to deal with economic structure," she added.

As the New York Times reported ahead of the hearing, many advocates say reparations could involve a wide variety of structural reforms offered to black Americans, including "zero-interest loans for black prospective homeowners, free college tuition, community development plans to spur the growth of black-owned businesses in black neighborhoods—to address the social and economic fallout of slavery and racially discriminatory federal policies that have resulted in a huge wealth gap between whites and blacks in America."

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another testifying witness, has proposed a program which would provide every child born in the U.S.—regardless of their ancestry—with a $1,000 savings bond at birth, which would grow each year and which they would be able to access when they turn 18.

Others have proposed including reparative policies within structural reforms. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who Coates said in a New Yorker interview this month seems "serious" about finding a way to offer reparations to black families, included in her housing plan a down-payment assistance program for low income first-time home buyers purchasing homes in formerly red-lined or segregated neighborhoods, a proposal she said would help bridge the wide gap between black and white home ownership. She also included a federal fund for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in her education plan.   

Financial reparations have been given to victims of injustice in the past in the U.S., including to survivors of a eugenics program in North Carolina who had been sterilized by the government, 26,000 Japanese Americans who had been sent to internment camps during World War II, and 82,000 of their descendants.

Republicans on the committee expressed skepticism regarding the topic, with Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) suggesting that today's Democratic Party bears more responsibility for slavery than Republicans who have supported President Donald Trump's agenda because the Democratic Party of the 1800s backed enslavement.

Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana opened his remarks by claiming that a "small" subset of white Americans owned slaves before the Civil War, eliciting boos from the audience.

Times columnist Jamelle Bouie denounced the Republican members for the dismissive tone they took during the hearing, arguing that one need not agree that economic reparations should be made or agree on a specific method of offering them, to see that a well-attended hearing about the concerns of the descendants of slaves represents a historic moment.

Watch the hearing below:

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