Rectifying HR 40: The prelude to Black reparations in the 21st century

OPINION: Recent unrest over the death of George Floyd makes clear the need to bring about racial justice in America

A demonstrator raises his fist at the Lincoln Memorial during a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The sight of George Floyd’s life force leaving his body has convulsed the world for four solid weeks. The horror of watching a police officer apply his knee and full weight to the neck of a handcuffed and helpless Floyd prompted protests both here and abroad.

Floyd’s death, one of the so many products of anti-Black violence but unusual in its glaring visibility, makes clear the need to bring about racial justice in America. It is time for Black reparations.

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A woman raises her fist as protesters gathered for the March On Georgia, organized by NAACP, on June 15, 2020 in Downtown Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Dustin Chambers/Getty Images)

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on HR 40, legislation to enact a Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans, symbolically, on June 19, 2019 or “Juneteenth.”

Juneteenth is the date now dedicated to the celebration of the end of American slavery. The bill was first introduced by the late John Conyers (D-MI) in 1989 and is currently managed by Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). The title HR 40 is in memory of the failed promise of 40-acre land grants made to the formerly enslaved in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. 

One year later, on June 19, 2020, more than 150 representatives now have signed in support of the bill and a new hearing is scheduled. 

In the past, activation of a study commission has been a first step toward establishing a program of redress for grievous injustice. For example, prior to the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 — enabling legislation for reparations payments to Japanese Americans as compensation for their unjust incarceration during World War II — Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). 

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The CWRIC produced a study, Personal Justice Denied, that accomplishes two critical goals. First, it demonstrated that American officialdom had credible evidence that Japanese Americans were not a national security threat but still proceeded with the internment project. Second, it outlined a program of restitution.

As a prelude to a comprehensive program of reparations for Black Americans, a parallel commission should be mobilized to produce a report that details the case and a plan for restitution. HR 40 provides the opportunity to establish such a commission.

Unfortunately, there are some limitations to the text of HR 40. Creation of an effective commission to make Black reparations a reality requires rewriting portions of the bill. 

Revision of HR 40 must include the following changes:

  1. The Commission must be charged with developing a proposal for redress that will eliminate the gulf in Black and white wealth in the United States. While Black Americans constitute 13 percent of the nation’s population, they possess less than 3 percent of the nation’s wealth. A reparations plan must be designed to bring the Black share of wealth, at least, into alignment with the Black share of the population.
  2. The Commission must be directed to set as eligible recipients Black American descendants of United States slavery. Eligible recipients must show that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States — a lineage standard, and, for at least twelve years prior to the enactment of a reparations plan or a study commission, whichever comes first, they self-identified as Black, negro, or African American — an identity standard. 
  3. The relevant window for the Black American claim for reparations dates from 1776 to the present (not 1619 as the bill currently reads). Since the claim for redress must be made on the U.S. government, the beginning date for the claim must be associated with the founding of the Republic, not the landing of enslaved persons at Jamestown, Virginia.
  4. The Commission must be directed to complete its report, inclusive of a detailed prescription for legislation to enact a reparations program for Black Americans, within 18 months of its impaneling.
  5. Commissioners should be selected exclusively by Congress. They must be experts in American history, Constitutional law, economics (including stratification economics), political science, and sociology, and they must have expertise on the history of slavery and the Jim Crow regime, employment discrimination, wealth inequality, health disparities, unequal education opportunity, criminal justice and mass incarceration, media, political participation and exclusion, and housing inequities.
  6. There should be a paid professional staff. While the commissioners’ reasonable expenses should be met, unlike the present version of the bill, neither they nor any organization to which they belong should receive a salary, honorarium, or the equivalent for performing this vital national service. 

The establishment of a commission is an important step on the road to reparations. An effective reparations plan will require an effective commission. In turn, that will require a conscientious and careful revision of HR 40. Let the work begin.

A. Kirsten Mullen is a folklorist and the founder of Artefactual, an arts-consulting practice, and Carolina Circuit Writers, a literary consortium that brings expressive writers of color to the Carolinas. She is author, with William Darity, of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-first Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). 



Justin Cook/Minneapolis Fed

William A. (“Sandy”) Darity Jr. is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. His most recent book, authored with A. Kirsten Mullen, is From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (2020).


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