WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers on Wednesday held the first congressional hearing in more than a decade on reparations, spotlighting the debate over whether the United States should consider compensation for the descendants of slaves in the United States.
Witnesses included actor and activist Danny Glover, who told a House Judiciary panel that his great-grandfather was enslaved. He called a national reparations policy "a moral, democratic and economic imperative."
It was Congress' first hearing in a decade on the topic and comes amid a growing discussion in the Democratic Party on reparations and sets up a potential standoff with Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the idea.
"This hearing is yet another important step in the long and historic struggle of African Americans to secure reparations for the damage that has been inflicted by slavery and Jim Crow," Glover told the panel.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who drew new attention to the issue with his 2014 essay, "The Case for Reparations," told the panel "it's impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery."
Sen. Cory Booker , D-N.J., a presidential contender, testified that the U.S has "yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country's founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality."
But another writer, Coleman Hughes, who at times testified over boos from the audience, said black people don't need "another apology," but safer neighborhoods, better schools, a less punitive criminal justice system and better health care.
"None of these things can be achieved through reparations for slavery," said Hughes, who says he is the descendant of blacks enslaved at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
The legislation, which would set up a bipartisan commission to study the issue, spotlights a national conversation over the legacy of slavery. Several of the Democratic Party's presidential candidates have endorsed looking at the idea, though they have stopped short of endorsing direct payouts for blacks.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Wednesday called reparations a "serious issue" and said he expects the resolution will see a vote in the House.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who became the sponsor of a measure to study reparations after the retirement of Democratic Rep. John Conyers, said to the packed hearing room, "I just simply ask: Why not and why not now?"
But McConnell opposes reparations, telling reporters Tuesday that he doesn't want reparations for "something that happened 150 years ago."
"We've tried to deal with the original sin of slavery by passing civil-rights legislation," McConnell said, and electing a black president, Barack Obama.
"It would be hard to figure out who to compensate" for slavery, the Kentucky Republican said, and added: "No one currently alive was responsible for that."
Top Democrats pushed back Wednesday on McConnell's comments, with one calling his remarks "sad."
Rep. Kathleen Clark, D-Mass., a member of the leadership team, said the country's history of slavery is a "stigma and a stain" that continues to be felt today. That McConnell wants to "write that off," she said, is ignoring the impact and legacy of the country's history.
"We cannot look to him for any sort of moral authority or guidance on how we should be addressing the issues of slavery and the impact today on income inequality, curtailing opportunity and civil rights and voting rights," she said.
Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the top Republican on the panel, said he respects the beliefs of those who support reparations. He called America's history with slavery "regrettable and shameful."
But he said paying monetary reparations for the "sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago" would be unfair, difficult to carry out in practice and, in his view, likely unconstitutional.
Republicans invited Hughes and also Burgess Owens, a former Oakland Raiders football player and Super Bowl champion, who recently wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial eschewing reparations.
The debate over reparations for black Americans began not long after the end of the Civil War.
A resolution to study reparations was first proposed in 1989 by Conyers of Michigan, who put it forward year after year.
The hearing Wednesday coincided with Juneteenth, a cultural holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in the United States.
A Section on 06/20/2019
Print Headline: Slavery reparations divides panelists