Explained: H.R. 40 and the possibility of reparations


Photo taken by Manny Ceneta.

Maija Sikora , General Assignment Reporter

Every year, June 19 sits on the calendar remembering a milestone in American history. This milestone that occurred in 1865 represents the enactment of the emancipation of slaves in America. The date June 19 is now known as “Junteenth,” as the date is a tribute to the trials and tribulations experienced by slaves, after they had been technically freed by policy but because of loopholes and racism in people and society, they were not free within a sense of autonomy. This year on Juneteenth, Americans celebrated the day by discussing the H.R. 40 bill.

What is H.R. 40?

In legal terms, H.R. 40 is the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” More so, it is a proposal for the formation and financial budgeting of a committee dedicated to the research and evaluation of the impacts slavery has on African Americans in contemporary society.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jackson Lee and introduced on Jan. 3, 2019. Rep. Jackson Lee said the bill “will address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery.” 109 representatives co-sponsored the H.R. 40, all of them Democrats.

The purpose of the bill is four-fold, in that it will: Acknowledge the injustice done to African Americans during the institution of slavery, establish a formal commission to study the effects of slavery on the socioeconomic stance of freed slaves, establish a formal commission to undeniably acknowledge the effects of slavery, and to what extend they exist today, for living Black people, and proceed with recommendations to congress on how to appropriate any and all reparations needed.

The end goal of H.R. 40 is not the disbursement of cash, checks or any other kind of direct deposit. According to a congressional correspondent of The New York Times Sheryl Gay Stolberg, those in favor of the bill say they would like to see alternative types of reimbursement — suggestions like zero-interest homeowner loans, free college tuition, or more innovative and integrated development plans for community neighborhoods to help cultivate black business owners in black neighborhoods, are just some proposed ideas.

Response to H.R. 40’s introduction

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said reparations are not a good idea. “None of us currently living are responsible. I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president,” said McConnell.

With a differing opinion, journalist and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates testified at the House hearing of H.R. 40 and delivered an opening statement. In his statement, Coates responded to McConnell’s comment by saying:

“Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader. What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something”: It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.”

Sen. Cory Booker commented at the hearing as well by adding, “I look at communities like mine, and you can literally see how communities were designed to be segregated, designed based on enforcing institutional racism.”

Actor Danny Glover testified saying, “I sit here as a great-grandson of a former slave freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The problem of racial inequality in America is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attribute’s, America is deeply racist, and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially.”

In an interview with The Hill President Trump said he does not “see” reparations happening, “I think it is a very unusual thing, you have a lot of – it’s been a very interesting debate.”

Many Democrats who are running for the 2020 nominee have commented on reparations, but Democrat Joe Biden has not made a current statement on his feelings of the act. In 1975, Biden told a Delaware newspaper “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel like responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

History behind reparations

This is not the first time an institution has considered reparations. In 1923 in Rosewood Florida Fannie Taylor was beaten when her husband returned home, and the white residents agreed that the assailant was Black. This accusation sparked the massacre of an entire town. The mob, which included Klu Klux Klan members, killed at least six community members, although kept records suggest the number ranges closer to between 27 and 100. More than 70 years later, the state of Florida gave money to the survivors, after the story, which had previously been hidden, was brought to the public eye. The state designated 2 million dollars to the project, survivors were awarded sums of exactly $3,333.33. 

Historian Lizzie Jenkins recalls that her mother received the compensation cash, and remembers watching as her friends and family used it to do remedial chores to their house, or foundation work to their credit. In a New York Times article on the effectiveness of reparations, Jenkins told reporters that they didn’t get a lot of money, but she was glad to at least see Florida attempting to acknowledge a mistake.

However, not all reparation attempts have been anticlimactic. This past spring, Georgetown University students voted to increase their tuition to help fund an affirmative action policy in their admissions department.

Reparations have also been discussed at the collegiate level. “Georgetown University agreed in 2016 to give admissions preference to descendants of the 272 slaves.” The school also formally apologized for its role in slavery, and has renamed two buildings on its campus to acknowledge the lives of enslaved people. The increase in tuition of $27.20 will allow the students to raise about $380,000 a year for the descendant’s fund.

Strolberg explained what reparations would look like for the United States, “Advocates for the bill say their cause is misunderstood and emphasize that it does not necessarily mean that the government would be writing checks to black people.”

Economist Julianne Malveaux, commented as well, “When a Black woman or man is arrested, they may land in jail for how many days because they don’t have  the home the mortgage to get the bail – and cash bail is discriminator. I want y’all Congress people to deal with issues of economic structure.”

In a 2016 Marist Poll for reparations, “68 percent of residents nationally do not think the United States should pay reparations to descendants of slaves.” This figure breaks down to 81 percent of White Americans, 35 percent of African Americans, and 47 percent of Latinx people. This survey of 1,221 adults was conducted April 27 and April 28 and May 2 through May 4, 2019. It should be noted that those surveyed were all above age 18 and were interviewed only over the phone in English. No other language option was provided.

How will this bill effect UWL students?

Regardless of whether or not H.R. 40 passes, its introduction will have implications in America’s current political climate. For University of Wisconsin-La Crosse students, who will most likely be graduated by the time any conducts are put in place, the change would be most apparent in the way education approaches the study of slavery in a historical context, and the understanding of systems of oppression in a contemporary context. If the bill is enacted, and congress deems financial or policy changes necessary, America can most likely expect something similar to its set precedent.

It is important to remember that the purpose of H.R. 40, is not to enact slavery reparations, but to determine if, and to what extent they are necessary, through the use of conclusive research. For those who are watching congress make the decision, whether in anticipation or with passing interest, the verdict will come to rest on the shoulders of all Americans.