Members of the House of Representatives held a hearing Wednesday to consider legislation that would establish a commission to make proposals for reparations to be paid to African-Americans and decide whether a national apology for slavery should be issued.
The hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties comes as President Joe Biden has said multiple times since his inauguration that the United States is systemically racist.
“I think we have to deal with systemic racism that exists throughout society,” Biden said at a CNN town hall Tuesday night.
Further, on Sunday, Biden signed an executive order focused in part on combating the “scourge of systemic racism” and the “profound polarization” in the U.S.
Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, the primary sponsor of H.R. 40, made clear the reparations commission the bill would create is not merely to engage in an academic exercise.
“It is to study,” she said, “but it is also to develop reparation proposals.”
“This commission will probe into the facts of the long-standing impact, the disparities that slavery brought about in this country. We still experience them today,” she said.
“The government sanctioned slavery and that is why we need a reckoning, a healing, reparative justice. We need to bring our nation together.”
The bill has 173 co-sponsors in the House, so it’s well on its way to the 218 or so needed for passage.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki stopped short on Wednesday of saying Biden would sign H.R. 40 if it were to pass Congress, The Associated Press reported.
“He certainly would support a study of reparations,” Psaki said. “He understands we don’t need a study to take action right now on systemic racism, so he wants to take actions within his own government in the meantime.”
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee began Wednesday’s hearing acknowledging that slavery was introduced into the American colonies in 1619, over 150 years before they declared their independence from Great Britain.
However, Cohen contended that the United States government bears blame because it made accommodations for the institution to continue in the new republic.
“Our Constitution protected it and embodied various compromises that gave disproportionate power to slave states,” Cohen said.
“For example, the three-fifths clause, which we always hear about, counted a slave a three-fifths of a person for population counts, which in turn gave disproportionate representation to slave states in the House of Representatives and accordingly in the Electoral College, which was created as a way to elect a president,” he added.
Cohen did not seem to grasp that the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution was actually a win for Northern free states delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California set him straight.
“Ironically, [Cohen’s] taking the side of the Southern states at the convention. They wanted a full count of every slave that they held in order to add to their congressional representation. It was the anti-slavery states that objected,” McClintock recounted.
“They argued that those were held in bondage should not be counted at all in the apportionment of congressional seats, not because they were not human beings, but precisely because they were,” he continued.
“That the Constitution should not reward slave states with representation in Congress, while these states denied these people their freedom.”
So the compromise was adopted as a way to bridge the divide between the slave states and free states.
Perhaps Democrats need to be reminded that the first legislative blows against slavery, really in world history, came in the United States, when the Northern states began outlawing the institution during and in the years immediately following the Revolutionary War.
By 1804, all of them had passed legislation ending slavery.
Britain would not abolish slavery until 1833, over 50 years after the American colonies declared their independence.
Further, in 1787, the Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance barring the introduction of slavery into the territory that would become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
The Constitution specifically authorized the federal government to ban the importation of slaves in 1808 (approximately 20 years from the date the document was ratified).
All this works against the Democrats’ narrative about the evil, slavery-loving Founders.
So to recap, after millennia of human history, in which slavery existed on every continent, it was in the United States where the abolition movement took hold and bore fruit.
Ultimately, President Abraham Lincoln and the North would oversee the demise of slavery on American soil during the Civil War in the 1860s.
The Republican-controlled Congress then passed the three post-Civil War amendments outlawing slavery, guaranteeing equal protection under the law and securing the right to vote for African-Americans.
This history should be a source of great pride.
“Yes, there are racists in our society,” McClintock observed. “There are racists of all colors in every society. It is the baser side of human nature, but no nation has struggled harder to transcend that nature and isolate and marginalize its racists than have Americans.”
1960s civil rights activist Bob Woodson, who is African-American, responded to Wednesday’s reparations hearing, calling the whole topic of reparations a “major distraction” in an interview with The Western Journal.
“And what problems would it solve?” he asked.
“In one sense, the poverty programs of the last 50 years have been a form of government reparations,” Woodson argued.
He also asked, “What about the half-million people who are whites who died and never owned slaves and died, whose family members died fighting against [slavery]?” during the Civil War.
Do their descendants deserve compensation too?
Former NFL player Hershel Walker raised some other practical questions in testimony before the subcommittee on Wednesday.
“Reparations, where does the money come from?” he asked. “Does it come from all the other races except black taxpayers? Who is black? What percentage of black must you be to receive reparations?”
Walker also wondered about the African-Americans who immigrated to the United States after slavery ended.
It is no doubt that these and other questions are the reasons why Americans overwhelmingly reject reparations.
Even during the height of last summer’s racial protests, just one in five of those surveyed in a Reuters/Ipsos poll voiced support for reparations.
McClintock provided a nice summary of why reparations are a bad idea.
“I can’t imagine a more divisive, polarizing or unjust measure than one that would by government force require people who never owned slaves to pay reparations to those who never were slaves based not on anything they’ve done, but because of what race they were born,” he said.
“Fortunately, we have a Constitution that forbids such an injustice.”
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