House panel approves bill to study reparations for Black citizens
Photo credit: Stephanie Sundier
House panel approves bill to study reparations for Black citizens

The US House Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday to advance legislation that would create a commission to develop a plan for distributing reparations to descendants of people who were enslaved as well as victims of the systemic racism that is still engrained in the US government and society today.

The legislation, known as HB 40, refers to the failed “40 Acres” promise made to people who were freed after the Civil War. It was introduced by the late Rep. John Conyers of Michigan back in 1989. If enacted, this legislation would provide for the creation of a commission of legislators and activists who would research ways to educate citizens about the continuation of systemic racism and come up with plans to distribute compensation.

However, the bill faces uncertainty in Senate that is so narrowly split. The measure passed through the committee with a 25-17 vote with Republicans unanimously in opposition. There are no Republicans among the bill’s 176 co-sponsors. The bill would need 60 votes to overcome the filibuster in the Senate.

Sponsors finally gained momentum for this bill in the wake of the 2020 protests against racist police violence that reignited a national conversation about discrimination in the US. Similar measures have been proposed in various cities and states. Last month, the city of Evanston, a suburb outside of Chicago, made headlines for offering reparations to residents that could be used to invest in or improve property. But Evanston alderwoman Cicely Fleming, a Black woman who voted against the plan, criticized its narrow criteria for qualifications and strict limits on what reparations payments can be used for.

Other cities have chosen to look beyond means-tested action like that in Evanston, which prioritizes applicants who can trace their lineage to Black residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 and suffered from discrimination. In late March, the Mayor of Oakland announced the city’s guaranteed income program. While this program is still limited to low-income families, it does not require such proof of historic discrimination.

Still, advocates everywhere have expressed the need for action at the federal level in order to address the full scope of the issue. President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed support for HB 40, and bill sponsor Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said that she is “very comfortable with where President Biden is,” in his support of the bill.