On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Committee held a hearing on the issue of slavery reparations, the first time in over a decade members of Congress formally broached the subject.
Among those invited to testify before the committee was Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author, journalist, and academic whose 2014 essay in The Atlantic outlined the case in favor of reparations and reignited a national conversation on the matter.
One day before the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he would oppose any effort to pursue reparations by Congress, and suggested black Americans should be thankful because Barack Obama was president.
“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,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
McConnell’s comments are a common refrain among those who oppose reparations, and Coates spent the majority of his opening remarks explaining the myriad ways in which they are both illogical and ignorant.
“For a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Mitch McConnell,” said Coates.
“We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox,” said Coates. “But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard…He was alive for the redlining of Chicago, and the looting of black homeowners of some four billion dollars. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I’m sure they would love a word with the majority leader.”
Coates is considered by many to be the most authoritative voice on the issue of reparations, and his testimony was in support of House Resolution 40, which calls for the formation of a federal commission to “study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans.”
The issue of reparations, once considered a radical proposal in the halls of Congress, has gained traction in recent years, particularly among Democratic lawmakers. So much so, that the issue has even arisen on the presidential campaign trail, where several leading 2020 Democratic candidates have been asked to weigh in on the idea.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) voiced her support for H.R. 40 earlier this year during a town hall event on CNN.
“I think it’s time for us to have the conversation,” she said. “We need to address the fact that in this country, we built great fortunes and wealth on the backs of slaves and we need to address that head-on — we need to have that national conversation.”
She stopped short of supporting direct payments to black families though, pointing out that there are schisms among scholars and activists about how best to structure reparations.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has shied away from backing reparations, instead insisting he would support policies that directly impact minority communities.
“I think what we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities: black communities, Latino communities, and white communities, and as president, I pledge to do that,” he told the hosts of The View back in March.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), one of three black lawmakers running for the Democratic nomination, was also on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify before the House subcommittee.
“We as a nation have not yet acknowledged and grappled with racism and white supremacy that has tainted this country’s founding, and continues to persist in deep racial disparities and equalities today,” he said during his testimony. “This is a very important hearing.”