Black Enslavement Underwrote America. The Bill’s Coming Due.
While Biden carefully avoided committing to a bill that would allow for a study of reparations, congressional Republicans were bringing out Black men to oppose it on their behalf.
Studying the extent of the damage caused by Black chattel slavery would be —and I mean this literally—the very least America could do to address racial inequality. But white conservatives oppose a bill that would undertake even that baby step.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week that President Joe Biden would support an investigation of the enduring impact of slavery and the inequities it created between Black and white Americans.
“He certainly would support a study of reparations,” Psaki told reporters at the day’s press briefing. “He continues to demonstrate his commitment to take comprehensive action to address the systemic racism that persists today. Having that study is a part of that.”
The bill that would compel that study—and that Biden has carefully avoided putting his full support behind, even as he’s endorsed the concept—is H.R. 40, which has been proposed in nearly every Congress for over 30 years, only to inevitably die in subcommittee, since the late Michigan Representative John Conyers first introduced it back in 1989.
There’s nothing radical about the bill. It does not legislate that the Treasury start cutting checks to Black descendants of enslaved folks. It doesn’t even ask that the U.S. apologize for only paying reparations for slavery once—to the white enslavers of Black folks, not Black people they kept in bondage. (No, really—this country did that.) It is a bill that does the absolute bare minimum of creating a 13-person panel to look into how more than 250 years of enslavement and another century of Jim Crow, redlining, massive land theft and ongoing mass incarceration may have cheated Black people. This is what the president won’t commit to signing if it somehow got through the House and the Senate and to his desk, with Psaki saying only that Biden would “support a study but we’ll see what happens through the legislative process.”
But GOP legislators proved, yet again, they have no authentic interest in— and are in fact adamantly opposed to—acknowledging, much less addressing the way slavery looms large over every aspect of contemporary American life, or how it established white supremacy as the firmament upon which every American policy and institution rests. That’s probably because a rigorous interrogation of the far-reaching consequences of slavery would upset the myth of white American supremacy and exceptionalism, and in doing so, destroy the lie that Black inequality is the incidental consequence of a failing people and not the intended end result of every American system.
Of course, these cowardly racists would never actually say all that out loud. So they trotted out two Black conservatives—talk show host Larry Elder and former football player Herschel Walker—to do it for them.
Elder rattled off all the expected white conservatives’ talking points on their behalf. He said that racism was very bad, but better now, and mentioned that there was once a Black woman president at an Ivy League college, a Black coach at Notre Dame, and many Black mayors and police chiefs of big cities. He brought up that Martin Luther King predicted in 1964 that the U.S. might have a Black president in 40 years and, lo and behold, in 2008 we got an Obama. And, in conclusion, more hard work and bootstraps.
Walker covered some of the same ground, verbatim, opening up with the fact that “racism is better today than yesterday.” But then he went further afield, saying Black power supposedly inspires “white guilt,” “reparations teach separation,” and “slavery ended over 130 years ago.” The former NFL star asked if reparations should to go the descendants of Civil War dead, labeled reparations a handout and questioned if the blame fell on the “African Americans [who] sold your African American ancestors into slavery.” Walker, who is now a pastor, closed by stating that “reparation or atonement is outside the teaching of Jesus Christ.”
“Like (at) our last hearing, the minority has selected two African American witnesses to speak against HR 40,” said bill sponsor Sheila Jackson Lee. “That is their privilege. But we know that justice, facts and that life that was led and continues to be led by African Americans is on our side.”
These Black conservatives are probably earnest, albeit wrong, in their refutation of the need for reparations. The U.S. has rightly paid reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and Alaskan Aleutians displaced by and put in camps during war. And again, the white enslavers of Black people in Washington, D.C. were given $23 million in 1862, the government’s way of saying “sorry” for requiring them to emancipate their free labor.
In today’s dollars, the 40 acres and a mule that the U.S. promised, began distributing, and then took back from emancipated Black people in order to return it to Confederate traitors, would be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.4 trillion. A Harvard study released just this week states that a “restitutive program… would not only decrease COVID-19 risk for” Black people, but “the mitigating effects would also be distributed across racial groups, benefiting the population at large.”
However many Black football coaches and police chiefs there are, white families possess 10 times the wealth of Black families, a median difference of $171,000 to $17,600. This isn’t because Black people are not trying or striving, or because of some cultural pathology endemic to Blackness, which is the subtext of every argument that overlooks the historical and contemporary racial discrimination—in health care, education access, bank lending, policing—that continues to misshape and define our lives.
Yes, there was ultimately an Obama, but most white people voted against him twice, so I’m gonna need white conservatives and their Black allies to stop with that one. And while religion is irrelevant to this whole conversation, Walker’s argument that “atonement is outside the teaching of Jesus Christ” sure seems like a gross misreading of nearly every biblical doctrine and Christianity writ large.
Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, who sits on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties alongside Lee, said out loud what lies underneath the arguments Black conservatives were sent to make.
“I can’t imagine a more divisive, polarizing or unjust measure,” McClintock stated, “than one that would by government force require people who never owned slaves to pay reparations by those who never were slaves.”
It’s a ridiculous argument given the benefits that white Americans continue to derive from slavery’s white supremacist beginnings. What’s more, McClintock is intentionally misrepresenting the bill’s contents, which don’t force anyone to pay anybody, but instead put together a body to measure the cost of slavery. It’s a scaremongering, bad faith argument from top to bottom.
Conservatives consistently suggest slavery had no lasting consequence, but then oppose any effort to scientifically investigate whether that’s actually true. Their refusal to back a bill that would thoughtfully and thoroughly examine the legacy of slavery is part of a longstanding white American refusal to acknowledge that we’ve never been a meritocracy.
It’s time America took a serious look at ways to remedy the staggering wages of Black enslavement that financially underwrote this country’s beginnings. It would be a heavy lift to get to his desk for his signature, but promising to sign H.R. 40 and pushing hard to get it there would be the very least Biden could do.