A little bit over 153 years ago, the 13th Amendment officially ended slavery in the United States. Our road to a colorblind society has been a rocky one since then — to the point where some, usually on the left, now even doubt whether it can be done — but it would take an act of very willful blindness to doubt whether African-Americans had progressed, in every possible category, during that period.
Nevertheless, the subject of reparations for slavery is a frequent one of late, with a certain corner of the polity believing the nation should pay African-Americans to make amends for a litany of offenses — real and perceived — stretching from the slaves brought to Jamestown up until the present day.
House Resolution 40 is one possible framework to come up with a reparations scheme for something so sweeping. And, now that the Democrats have control of the lower house, its languorous movement through Congress is likely to be sped up considerably.
Introduced last January, it seeks “(t)o address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”
The bill was introduced by Democrat Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Some months after the introduction of the resolution and its referral to the House Committee on the Judiciary, Rep. Conyers became a relatively unsuitable face of H.R. 40 for, um, reasons.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the long-serving Texas Democrat, has thus become the prime mover of the resolution in the House. (Considering that Jackson Lee has never been one of the brightest bulbs in the House, that doesn’t mean the resolution will move at all.)
After a recent event speaking at the Legislative and Policy Conference of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network — in which the Elmer Gantry of the modern civil rights movement “and over a hundred civil rights activists gathered on Capitol Hill in the wake of the 2018 midterms to hear from prominent national Democrats about their plans to address an urgent social justice crisis in America as the party prepares to take control of the House of Representatives in January,” according to its website — Rep. Lee was asked a few questions about the resolution, the audio of which was posted to YouTube.
“It’s a commission to study the issue of what was the economic impact of the work of slaves and how does it translate in the 21st century,” Jackson Lee said. “And what we want to do is to build a narrative, a story of the facts and out of that be able to access how we repair some of the damage.
“When you look at urban blight, when you look at schools in inner cities and rural communities that are not at the level of excellence that they should be, when you look at support for (historically black colleges and universities), all of that will be part of understanding that whole journey and that whole economic journey,” she continued.
“And it is interesting that these magnificent buildings were built by slaves, obviously with no compensation. That is not what we are asking for; this bill is to have a commission to hear from people all over the nation.”
The bill, according to Jackson Lee, was “a beginning process and an educational process for the nation in a non-controversial manner, and not in a manner of pitting one group of people against another.”
I don’t know in what universe it would not be controversial to ask all other Americans to pay for reparations “for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans.”
This is doubly controversial when Rep. Jackson Lee seems to be committing the basic fallacy of assuming a conclusion before the evidence for it has been provided.
She thinks urban blight is because of slavery and what happened in its immediate aftermath — even though most urban blight happened during the late-20th and early-21st century in cities where the local governments were overwhelmingly liberal Democrat.
“(S)chools in inner cities and rural communities that are not at the level of excellence that they should be” because of de jure and de facto segregation — even though enormous sums of money has been pumped into these schools without success. And again, those school districts are controlled by liberal Democrats.
Support for HBCUs is apparently ebbing, but to Jackson Lee, that apparently has nothing to do with the fact that enrollment of black students in other institutions of higher learning is skyrocketing.
When the Democrats aren’t going to be busy investigating the Trump administration, social justice initiatives like this are bound to take up a significant part of the agenda. Jackson Lee makes it abundantly clear that this is just a committee to study reparations, and for a very good reason.
While one doesn’t set up a commission to study a subject unless one wishes to move upon a subject, to state otherwise would raise significant questions about how reparations would work. That’s not just an idle question, since a debate about the framework of reparations would show how morally untenable it is.
For instance, who gets reparations? Do those who can show lineage to slave families get more? Do we exempt black Americans whose families came to this country after slavery or de jure segregation ended? Do they get less?
What determines the amount of reparations paid? Do non-black Americans whose families came to America after slavery or de jure segregation ended not have to pay the taxes that will be required to fund reparations? Do families of those who lost relatives in the Civil War have to pay less, since they made a sacrifice — no matter how removed — to free the slaves? And at what point do we say reparations are enough? If a future generation decides they aren’t, do we go back and culturally relitigate this again?
The idea behind reparations is that America has to pay for its sins. Except this isn’t how it will work: Americans will pay for those sins. And not for their sins — the sins of generations much earlier.
America is far from perfect when it comes to race, but no country is. We hope to move in the direction of justice, but not by taking from one group and giving to another to efface an evil that cannot be effaced.
These aren’t the conclusions that the panel commissioned by H.R. 40 can be expected to reach, or the lesson it can be expected to educate us about, particularly when its primary legislative benefactor is a woman who, just five years ago, said, “I stand here as a freed slave because this Congress came together.”
When it comes to having an cultural discussion about that peculiar institution this country very forcibly ended 153 years ago, this simply isn’t the way to go about it.
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