Can slavery reparations happen under the Biden administration?

EXCLUSIVE: In efforts to correct the wrong of slavery in the US, support for H.R. 40 is mounting as a markup and House vote are expected in March or this spring

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about his racial equity agenda in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 26, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

401 years ago, the first enslaved Africans came to this nation as free labor, fattening the pockets of plantation owners. Meanwhile, the negative and generational effects of this inhumane and government-approved horror still lingers. 

Engraving shows the arrival of a Dutch slave ship with a group of African slaves for sale, Jamestown, Virginia, 1619. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Today, in efforts to correct the wrong of slavery, support for H.R. 40 is mounting as a markup and House vote are expected in March or this spring. There is support for the House and Senate versions of the bill as House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are part of that backing. 

At the White House, President Joe Biden also supports the study. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki from the briefing room podium revealed, “The President has supported a study of reparations and continues to demonstrate his commitment to take comprehensive action to address systemic racism that persists today.”

Other groups supporting the bill include the NAACP, The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the ACLU

Read More: House to hold hearing on reparations study, but doubts remain bill will pass

H.R. 40 is the bill that would create a slavery reparations commission to study the restoration and repair for the descendants of slavery, which lasted 200 years in the United States.

Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee tells theGrio, “the commission will study and develop reparations proposals” and that the “disparities are not just governmental.” The commission’s focus is broad as the African American community still has the highest numbers of negatives in nearly every socio-economic category, from unemployment to rates of poverty.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Jackson Lee says the commission will look at corporate America, education, the environment for urban and rural America, health disparities, lack of access to health care and more. 

Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee has been presiding over the hearings in the House Judiciary Committee on the reparations bill. “We realize slavery was state sanctioned, a governmental action,” says the Texas U.S. representative. “The government has to respond to those years of bondage and the continuing disparities that are so stark.”

Wade McMullen of Robert Kennedy Human Rights believes, “compensation is absolutely part and parcel of what it means to repair and remedy harms that are caused by a government, particularly if you can economically assess the damage, including physical and mental harm or loss of social benefits, etc.”

Read More: Baltimore church established by slave owners creates reparations fund

(Colin Watts for UnSpash)

There is an international component to this issue of reparations, notes McMullen, “because in the international human rights framework, it’s very clear that reparations are to repair harm, and that’s distinct from social policy moving forward.”

So, what does the restitution look like to repair the damage of 200 years of slavery and the years that followed in this nation?

According to the National Archives, in January 1865 General William T. Sherman proposed Special Field Orders No. 15, promising 40 acres of abandoned and confiscated land in South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida (largely the Sea Islands and coastal lands that had previously belonged to Confederates) to freed people.

William Tecumseh Sherman (1820 – 1891), US general in the American Civil War, and later commander-in-chief of the entire US Army. Original Artwork: Engraving after a photograph by Brady. (Photo by Mathew Brady/Henry Guttmann Collection/Getty Images)

Sherman also decided to loan mules to former enslaved who settled the land. What’s more, he wanted the enslaved who fought for the Union to be repaid with forty acres of land — but that was never ratified. The question lingers: What does that forty acres equate to today?

After the Civil War, slavery was abolished with the 13th amendment and most slaves had nothing monetarily. 

Callie House, a Black woman and former enslaved created the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, chartered in August 1897. She was imprisoned for her efforts to compensate former slaves.

Former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Mary Frances Berry says that by 1899, “about 21 percent of the Black population nationally had been born into slavery.” Had the government distributed pensions to former slaves and their caretakers near the turn of the century, there would have been a relatively modest number of people to compensate.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Today, however, McMullen has a formula for how America can enact reparations. “Restitution is another way to enact reparation to restore the victim to the original situation before the gross violation of human rights. That’s going to be a difficult one in this situation,” says McMullen.

“Rehabilitation that includes the provision of medical and psychological care, as well as legal and social services. Black people in this country are still experiencing the harms that were caused and ingrained in our society and structures and rehabilitation could absolutely be a part of the reparations [and] should be a part of the reparation’s conversation. “

Read More: More US churches are committing to racism-linked reparations

Dreisen Heath, a researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch says “we also need to examine, account for, and compensate for the roots of injustice.

“The reparations process seeks to obtain accountability and justice that is needed for past and ongoing harms helping to close those very equity gaps in the future. Repair has to be a part of the plan,” Heath added.

The issue of slavery and its after effects has been a debate in Washington for years. H.R. 40 was introduced in 1989. However, for the past 25 years the debate has created anticipation and let down for those on the side of correcting the wrongs and ills of slavery in the U.S. 

The U.S. Capitol is seen, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Since 1997, demands for an apology for slavery and reparations have been an ongoing discussion that has never had resolution. 

The White House and the Congress have tussled with the issue that still draws the ire of Americans who have not come to grips with the generational constraints slavery has left on the descendants of the enslaved Africans in this nation. Over 401 years ago, the Middle Passage began and changed the dynamic of Africans in Africa and descendant Africans in America.  

On the Hill in 1997, white Ohio Democratic congressman Tony Hall introduced a bill for a slavery apology.  Congresswoman Sheila Jackson lee co-sponsored the bill and she is currently presiding in the House Judiciary Committee over H.R 40 that calls for a study of reparations. H.R. 40 is a bill that then-Congressman John Conyers supported and introduced for years. 

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 26: Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) questions witnesses during a House Judiciary Committee hearing concerning the oversight of the U.S. refugee admissions program, on Capitol Hill, October 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Trump administration is expected to set the fiscal year 2018 refugee ceiling at 45,000, down from the previous ceiling at 50,000. It would be the lowest refugee ceiling since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Throughout American history, the nation has seen apologies for numerous wrongs and the providing of financial restoration. In 1988, $1.6 billion was paid to Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II. The survivors received $20,000 each. 

Two years later, Congress apologized to uranium miners and those contaminated by nuclear tests in Nevada. And in 1993, Congress apologized to native Hawaiians for the U.S. role in overthrowing the Hawaiian government a century earlier.

For the survivors of the Tuskegee Study, the government reached a $10 million out-of-court settlement with the victims and their families in 1974, which included both monetary reparations (in 2014 dollars, $178,000 for men in the study who had syphilis, $72,000 for heirs, $77,000 for those in the control group and $24,000 for heirs of those in the control group.

For Rosewood, Florida residents in 1994, the state of Florida agreed to a reparations package worth around $3.36 million in 2014 dollars, of which $2.4 million today would be set aside to compensate the 11 or so remaining survivors of the incident, $800,000 to compensate those who were forced to flee the town, and $160,000 would go to college scholarships primarily aimed at descendants.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized to the victims of Cold War radiation treatments and to the Black men who were left untreated for syphilis in the infamous Tuskegee Experiment

President Clinton In The Oval Office After His Television Address To The Nation On Nato Bombing Of Serb Forces In Kosovo, March 24, 1999 In Washington Dc. (Photo By Pool/Getty Images)

When it comes to an apology for slavery and reparations, President Clinton said in 1997 in an interview with me for another news organization, that he did not favor compensating the victims of slavery, because the nation is so many generations removed from that era and that reparations for Black Americans may not be possible. Clinton said he would still consider extending an apology to African Americans for their ancestors’ suffering, but he did not.

President George W. Bush had previously argued that because Africans also participated in the slave trade, there should not be an apology on behalf of the United States. He failed to acknowledge that questions about an apology for slavery was specifically about the role that the U.S. federal government played. 

U.S. President George W. Bush (C) speaks after signing the 2008 Economic Report during a ceremony in the Oval Office the White House in February 11, 2008 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Shawn ThewPool/Getty Images)

For President Barack Obama the issue of slavery was moot. The feeling at time was that it would not be right for the first Black president to apologize for slavery. Obama’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, had a warped view of the confederacy, the Civil War and the impact of slavery, to say the least.

The overarching thought is that if there is ever an apology for slavery, it will be followed by a form of payment to correct the wrong. Some experts have argued that given the nation’s current national debt, reparations to the descendants of the enslaved could have negative impacts on the U.S. economy.

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