After Buffalo mass shooting, Biden urged to sign executive order to study reparations

Given inaction in Congress on passing H.R. 40, members of the Congressional Black Caucus tell theGrio they support President Biden creating a commission by executive action.

Loading the player...

Calls are getting louder for President Joe Biden to sign an executive order to create a commission that would study the history of enslavement in the United States and consider forms of reparations for African Americans.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus told theGrio that they support calls from advocacy groups for Biden to sign the order given inaction in Congress on H.R. 40, a bill that would create such a commission through legislation. 

President Joe Biden delivers remarks to guests, most of whom lost a family member in the Tops market shooting, at the Delavan Grider Community Center last month in Buffalo, New York. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In a May letter obtained by theGrio addressed to President Biden, a coalition of civil rights, human rights and faith-based organizations — including Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Color of Change and The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, among others — urged Biden to sign the executive order by June 19, the federal Juneteenth holiday the president signed into law last year that commemorates the end of slavery and celebrates the emancipation of Black people in the United States.

Rather than wait for Congress to act, the group demanded that Biden “make good on the promise that [he] and Vice President Kamala Harris made to Black voters.”

A source told theGrio that Democratic leadership is reluctant to bring H.R. 40 to a floor vote in fear that it could lead to blowback for the party in the months leading into the midterm elections in November.

U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) told theGrio he is “frustrated” with his colleagues’ inaction on H.R. 40 and condemned the suggestion that voting on the bill is politically risky.

“My frustration is when it comes to Black issues and Black people, we constantly make excuses, and we constantly kick the can down the road,” said Bowman, the only male member of the progressive faction in the House of Representatives known as “The Squad.”

Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York speaks during a news conference announcing a resolution to condemn “replacement theory” outside the U.S. Capitol Wednesday in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Avoiding or delaying national reconciliation on the issue of slavery in the U.S. through the study of reparations because “[Democrats] may lose the House,” Bowman cautioned, would signal that Democrats are “supporting white nationalism and racism and how they feel at the voting booth.”

Frustration aside, Bowman said that if Congress doesn’t have the political appetite to pass H.R. 40, he supports President Biden unilaterally creating a reparations commission. However, he noted that an executive order could simply be “overturned” by the next president, should they not support the commission because it wouldn’t be “codified into law.”

The freshman New York lawmaker, citing last month’s deadly mass shooting of 10 African Americans inside a Buffalo supermarket by an alleged white supremacist, said there is an urgency at this moment to “aggressively” work to establish a commission to study the impacts of slavery and reparative measures to “help us heal from the trauma of our history.”

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who introduced H.R. 40 in this session of Congress, told theGrio she also supports President Biden creating a reparations committee through executive action. While the longtime congresswoman, like Bowman, would rather see the commission be created through congressional action, she conceded that “we must always have more than one strategy.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) questions Janai Nelson, associate director and counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, during a House Homeland Security Committee in March in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“An executive order that takes the language of the bill … means that it will be a law that can begin to be implemented [and] begin to tackle the ugly head of racism,” said Jackson Lee. 

However, Jackson Lee highlighted that she and her Democratic colleagues in the 117th Congress had made historic strides in advancing H.R. 40 since it was first introduced in 1989 by U.S. Michigan Rep. John Conyers as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. During this session of Congress, it has garnered more than 200 co-sponsors, including 25 U.S. senators — the most support it has received in more than 30 years.

Jackson Lee also referenced the Buffalo mass shooting, telling theGrio “this is a moment in this horrible, violent terroristic crime that we show the worth of [Black] Americans.”

On Wednesday, during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Garnell Whitfield Jr., the son of Buffalo shooting victim Ruth Whitfield, delivered impassioned remarks about the emotional toll of racism in America.

“We’re taught to love even our enemies, but our enemies don’t love us,” Whitfield asserted. “So what are we supposed to do with all our anger and all of our pain? You expect us to continue to just forgive and forget over and over again?”

Garnell Whitfield Jr., of Buffalo, N.Y., whose mother, Ruth Whitfield, was killed in the Tops supermarket mass shooting, wipes away tears as he testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on domestic terrorism Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The Buffalo tragedy, as well as a court order allowing a lawsuit seeking reparations filed against the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, by three survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, has created momentum for the reparations movement. 

Rev. Mark Thompson, one of the co-signers of the letter urging Biden to sign the executive order, told theGrio that “Buffalo is an absolutely urgent opportunity to do something.”

“If we were granted H.R. 40 by executive order, it would be America once and for all saying Black lives actually do matter, and this nation must be repaired,” said Thompson. 

The reverend said he doesn’t believe it is a heavy lift for Biden to create an H.R. 40 commission, especially considering the president’s existing commitments to racial equity. When President Biden signed into law Juneteenth as a federal holiday, he called it “one of the greatest honors I will have had as president.” However, Thompson made clear Black Americans want and deserve “more than a holiday.”

“You can’t have Juneteenth holiday if you’re not addressing the original sin of America,” he added.

Rev. Mark Thompson, “Make It Plain” podcast host, speaks during the “Rally for D.C. Statehood,” the last stop of Black Voters Matter’s “Freedom Ride for Voting Rights” bus tour, at the National Mall in June 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Ultimately, Thompson said, appointing a commission to study reparations could cement Biden as one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history.

“He would be carrying on the unfinished business of Abraham Lincoln,” Thompson contended, referring to the fact that Lincoln was assassinated before the question of reparations for the newly freed enslaved Black people could be settled. “If Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president, any president who comes after [him] and picks up the baton where he left off probably qualifies to be a close second.”

“I would hope President Biden would keep that in mind,” he noted. “That’s a legacy that lives far beyond that for generations to come.”

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!

Loading the player...