A House of Representatives committee voted Wednesday (14) to recommend, for the first time, the creation of a commission to study the possibility of offering reparations to African Americans for slavery in the United States. , in addition to a “national request for an apology” For centuries of discrimination.
The early vote in the House Judiciary Committee was a historic milestone for reparations supporters, who have struggled for decades to garner broad support for proposed reparations for the lingering effects of slavery. Democratic parliamentarians on the committee passed a law creating the commission by 25 to 17 votes, overcoming Republican objections.
Entitled HR 40 because of the promise made at the time of the American Civil War and never held to give “40 acres of land and a mule” to ex-slaves, the bill is still unlikely to become law. With opposition from some Unified Democrats and Republicans, who argue that black Americans do not need a government document to compensate them for crimes committed in the distant past, neither the House nor the Senate has committed to move the bill forward.
But at a time when the country again faces the systemic racism exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd and other black men in clashes with the police, the move is receiving support from the most powerful Democrats in the world. countries, including Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democratic Majority Leader in the Senate. Opinion polls indicate that public support for the proposal is also increasing, although it is still far from broad.
“We are asking people to understand the pain, the violence, the brutality of what we are suffering, the way we have been treated as private property,” Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas said at a debate in committee Wednesday evening. “And, of course, we ask for harmony, reconciliation, reasons to come together as Americans.”
The renewed interest in reparations comes as Biden has placed the issue of correcting racial inequalities at the center of his national political agenda, proposing billions of dollars in investment in farmers, contractors, neighborhoods, students and poor African Americans. The White House has said that Biden’s $ 4 trillion (R $ 22.5 trillion) employment program aims in part to “combat systemic racism and rebuild our economy and our social safety net to enable everyone in America to reach their full potential ”.
The issue of reparations to former slaves and their descendants is one that has divided and afflicted politicians for generations, involving broader questions about the legacy of racism in America and the denial by whites of the deleterious effects of it. slave economy. It also contains thorny practical issues, such as who should benefit, what form reparations might take, and how they would be funded.
Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman made the first major attempt to offer reparations in 1865, with a special battlefield order to confiscate 400,000 acres of coastal land and give it in batches to former slaves. But after President Abraham Lincoln’s death later that year, his successor, Andrew Jackson, quickly ended the measure. No subsequent plan has ever failed to put it into practice.
Black parliamentarians in Congress began to raise the issue again three decades ago, when they first proposed a commission to explore it. The bill submitted to the Judiciary Commission on Wednesday proposes the creation of a body to study the effects of slavery and the decades of economic and social discrimination that followed it, often with the participation of the government, and of suggest ways to correct the abyss of wealth. and opportunity among black and white Americans. It also proposes the possibility of a “national apology” for the harm caused by slavery.
Supporters of federal reparations differ as to the precise form they might take. Some advocate direct payments of different amounts in cash. Others suggest that college education be free for African Americans and interest-free loans for African Americans who want to buy their own homes.
Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, set aside $ 10 million this year for reparations in the form of housing subsidies for African Americans who can prove that they or their ancestors were the victims of systematic denial. government or public sector goods or services or housing discrimination. of another kind. But any national program would be much larger, with costs projected to run into the billions or trillions of dollars.
Although his administration does not use the term “repairs,” Biden has adopted versions of many of these proposals in his broad efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and get the US economy back on track.
For example, its stimulus law to combat the effects of the coronavirus, the American Rescue Plan, includes investments of tens of billions of dollars in food assistance programs, direct payments to Americans and monthly aid to children – programs that apply regardless of the race of beneficiaries, but which will provide significant help to African Americans. The plan also provides $ 5 billion (28.1 billion reais) in aid and debt relief to help black farmers ease years of discrimination in farm credit policies for subsidies to black farmers.
“We understand that we don’t need a study to act now, against systemic racism now,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in February. “So, in the meantime, the president wants to act within the government himself.”
Biden’s jobs and infrastructure proposals, now at the top of the congressional agenda, plan to go further, allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to blacks, browns and others “Needy communities” through vocational training, investments in schools, grants on housing finance, business credit, replacement of lead pipes and clean-up of toxic waste.
A proposed measure provides for US $ 20 billion (112.5 billion reais) to reconnect neighborhoods, many of which were historically black, destroyed by interstate highways; another provides for the allocation of $ 20 billion to strengthen the research capacity of historically black colleges and universities.
Republicans have rejected many programs, calling them unnecessary, unpopular or too expensive, and appear to be rallying to oppose them directly in Congress, unless Democrats agree to cut them significantly.
Even though the programs are promulgated by law, academics who have excelled in the discussion of reparations insist that Biden’s plans do not replace reparations. William Darity of Duke University, a professor of public policy and author of a book on reparations, said proposals like Biden’s did not directly address the problem.
“If we are talking about all the consequences of African American wealth, the destruction of businesses or entire neighborhoods, misery and loss of land, we are talking about numbers that are far beyond the scope of these initiatives. relatively narrow programmatic, ”says Darity.
His vision for reparations focuses primarily on closing the income gap between African Americans and whites, which he says would require $ 10 trillion (R $ 56.3 trillion) or more in government funds. – a huge amount which is rejected by parliamentarians from both parties.
“Repair is a source of division. This indicates that we would be an unhappy, hopeless race that has never done anything but hope white people come and help us – and that’s a lie, ”said Republican MP Burgess Owens of Utah. , descendant of slaves during Wednesday’s debate. . “It’s degrading for my parents’ generation.”
Owens likened the idea of reparations to “a redistribution of wealth or socialism” and argued that what African Americans need is for the government to get out of their way as they struggle to continue. their own work, as previous generations have done. .
Some Democrats share this view. Others are reluctant to support a bill they fear Republicans could use as a weapon against them, portraying it as a sweeping effort to use the government to implement a politically correct agenda.