Passage of reparations bill H.R. 40, once an impossibility, is almost within reach

OPINION: The bill—introduced more than 30 years ago and now appears to have enough support to pass the House—would create a commission to study reparations and spark the national reckoning we need to fully confront the history of slavery and its lasting effects.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) speaks at a press conference on H.R. 40 legislation on Capitol Hill on November 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

At 14, I opened a book in my parents’ den and learned about the murder of Emmett Till. Around the same time, I heard of the brutal beating of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. I was floored that these horrific events did not happen hundreds of years ago—they happened in my lifetime. I was five months old when Emmett Till was murdered and was in grade school when Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten. The legacies of enslavement were far from over in my childhood—and still persist today.

My lifelong activism for reparations began with those pivotal childhood moments. After decades of hard-won gains, those seeds planted in my youth are finally blossoming into a full-grown tree with fruits that I might still taste. Right now, more than 200 members of the House of Representatives have agreed to vote “yes” on H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for the enslavement era and beyond. We are making history right now, even as the path to true justice remains long.

Until recently, reparations for Black people were considered an impossibility. Too many Americans discounted the need for these amends and cited ludicrous reasons why they were not needed, from the time that has elapsed since the end of slavery to the challenges in issuing payments to all Black people in America. But our insistence on a reckoning has brought us to the verge of a historic vote in Congress—or a possible executive order—while cities and states across the country have been taking the lead and issuing reparations of their own.

Reparations traditionally attempt to amend for a pivotal event or catastrophe. There is no one right remedy—or even symbolic relief—for centuries of kidnapping, torture, brutality, and the post-slavery persecution and injustices inflicted on Black people. Our names, culture, history, religion, and African heritage were stolen from us. Just as the harms stemming from slavery are wide-ranging and multifaceted, so too must be the remedy.

Reparations must encompass four key elements: acknowledging the historic crime of slavery; offering an unconditional apology; recognizing that the enslavement of yesterday has directly led to the ongoing harms to Black people today; and committing to redress, with its form to be determined not by the culpable parties but by the injured parties.

The expert commission that H.R. 40 seeks to form must ask Black people what they want from reparations. My journey has shown me that reparations mean much more than cash payments, contrary to the widely held myth that Black people are only seeking direct compensation. Faith institutions have established college scholarship funds for Black students, while in Georgetown County, South Carolina, a dignified reburial was held for the remains of enslaved people whose original graves were unearthed during construction.

In 1988, Japanese Americans who were wrongly removed from their homes and incarcerated in camps during WWII received an apology and reparations. A century earlier, in 1892, families of 11 Italian immigrants who were lynched received payments from the federal government. The precedent for H.R. 40 is there—but is the will to bring it to a vote? I believe it finally is. We have gone from a handful of co-sponsors when Rep. John Conyers introduced this bill more than 30 years ago to pledges of support from the majority of members of the House.

A commission to study reparations will spark a national reckoning that we need to fully confront the history of slavery and its lasting effects. It will be complicated, and it may be messy, but it is definitely time that the U.S. government takes up this issue.

Just as I was galvanized in my youth to advocate for a reckoning, and just as all who came before me used their youthful energy to bring about change, I call on today’s generation to carry the torch forward. Reparations are almost in reach — with your energy, enthusiasm, and commitment, we can finally grasp them.

Nkechi Taifa is a civil and human rights attorney, scholar-activist and author. She is president of the Taifa Group and serves as senior fellow for the Center of Justice at Columbia University.

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