Three decades after it was first introduced and a century and a half after the end of slavery, a bill to create a national reparations commission to propose ways to redress the wrongs of human bondage in the United States will get its first vote in a committee of the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The bill — labeled H.R. 40 after the unfulfilled Civil War-era promise to give former slaves “40 acres and a mule” — faces an uphill path amid opposition from Republicans and many Democrats. Democratic leaders have not yet promised a vote by the full House.
But as the country grapples anew with systemic racism, the bill now counts support from the president of the United States and key congressional leaders.
“We think it will be cleansing for this nation and it will be a step moving America forward to see us debate this issue on the floor of the House,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, who became the lead sponsor of the bill first proposed in 1989 by the late Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan.
Mr. Biden has positioned addressing racial inequities at the center of his domestic policy agenda, proposing billions of dollars in investments in Black farmers, business owners, neighborhoods, students and the poor. The White House has said Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion jobs agenda aims, in part, to “tackle systemic racism and rebuild our economy and our social safety net so that every person in America can reach their full potential.
Though the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill for the first time in 2019, it has never voted to advance it, as it is expected to on Wednesday.
Proponents of reparations differ on what form, precisely, they should take, though many agree that Mr. Biden’s proposals encompass the kinds of compensation that might be considered the modern-day equivalent of 40 acres and a mule. But that does not mean they are a replacement, they say.
“If this is about the full ramifications on Black wealth, about the destruction of entire businesses or neighborhoods, or the deprivation and loss of land, then we are talking about numbers that are far beyond the reach of what are relatively small programmatic initiatives,” said William A. Darity Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University who has written a book on reparations.
Mr. Darity’s vision of reparations primarily focuses on closing the wealth gap between African Americans and white people, something that he estimates would take $10 trillion or more in government funds.
The bill under consideration in the House, and a companion measure introduced by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, would impanel a 13-person commission to study the effects of slavery and the decades of economic discrimination that followed, often with government involvement, and propose possible ways to address their negative impact. The commission would also consider a “national apology” for the harm caused by slavery.
Opponents of reparations often argue that the wrongs of slavery are simply too far past and too diffuse to be practically addressed now. They question why taxpayers, many of whom came to the United States long after slavery ended, should foot a potentially large bill for payments or other forms of compensation to Black Americans.
Roy L. Brooks, a law professor at the University of San Diego who has also written on the issue, argues that the purpose of reparations should not be viewed as primarily monetary nor something that can be dealt with in the course of normal policymaking, no matter how effective.
“The purpose has to be bringing about racial reconciliation, and it can’t get swallowed up in generic domestic legislation, or else the significance is lost,” he said.
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