Black advocates challenge Biden on reluctance to sign executive order for reparations commission

Civil and human rights organizations tell theGrio they have grown frustrated with the White House's lack of movement on what they say is no longer a fringe issue. 

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Civil and human rights groups are calling out the Biden administration for its apparent reluctance to take executive action to create a commission to study slavery and reparations in the United States.

Calls to address the socioeconomic harms caused by the country’s “original sin” through reparative measures were recently renewed following the mass shooting of 10 African Americans at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, last month.

Despite growing outside pressure from the movement for reparations, the White House will not commit to President Biden signing an executive order. During a White House press briefing last week, theGrio asked Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre if the president would create the commission through executive action. 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre answers questions on June 13, 2022, during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In her response, Jean-Pierre reiterated what she had said earlier in June when asked about the executive order in response to a question about California releasing its own state task force report on proposals to develop reparations. “The president’s position hasn’t changed,” the presidential spokeswoman told theGrio.

On the record, President Biden supports a reparations commission and would sign H.R. 40 if passed by Congress. The bill would create a reparations commission by law. However, it has yet to come to a vote in this session of Congress, and given the lack of support from Republicans, it is unlikely to pass in the current U.S. Senate.

Advocates say given the political reality of H.R. 40 in the legislative branch, Biden using the power of the executive branch is the only viable path to creating the commission. 

“We know that we could get it passed in the House of Representatives, but it would only be a moral victory,” Ron Daniels, convenor of the National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC), told theGrio. “We don’t want a moral victory. We want an actual victory.”

As previously reported, a source told theGrio that Democratic leadership is reluctant to bring H.R. 40 to a floor vote for fear that it could lead to blowback for the party in the months leading into the midterm elections in November. However, Daniels said the decision to halt H.R. 40 was intentional and that Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn are all in support of bringing the bill to a vote. 

All sources contend that the best strategy on reparations is through executive order until more Democrats are elected into Congress. As advocates turn their attention to the White House, some say they have grown frustrated with the Biden administration’s lack of movement on what they say is no longer a fringe issue. 

U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden waits for the beginning of a virtual Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) on June 17, 2022, at the South Court Auditorium at Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“I think there’s some fear that is rooted in [the idea that] we have to stay away from Black issues if we’re going to win,” said Andre Perry, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute. Perry, a respected scholar and author of the book, “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” noted in an interview with theGrio that public approval of reparations has “tripled” in opinion polls.

A recent Gallup Center on Black Voices survey found that a majority (57 percent) of Americans believe Black people have been affected by the history of slavery in the U.S. Most Americans (63 percent) also said the federal government has a responsibility to do something about it.

Perry and other advocates also pointed out that despite the White House’s inaction on creating a reparations commission, states, local municipalities and even the private sector are all engaging in work related to reparations for Black Americans. In addition to California’s special task force, Maryland has also created a reparations commission.

In Illinois, Evanston became the first U.S. city to issue slavery reparations through a housing program to fund property repairs and other costs for Black homeowners and homebuyers. Similarly, in Asheville, North Carolina, the city council voted to create a reparations commission and issued a formal apology for its involvement in slavery and racially discriminatory policies. The private sector including banks, churches, and universities has also endorsed reparations or issued some form of reparative measures for Black Americans. 

Perry said the growing state and local movement toward reparations is a signal that the rest of the country is already ahead of the federal government, and that “it’s better to be in tune with what’s happening across the country than … signaling that reparations is going to bring down a president.”

Dreisen Heath, a researcher at the Human Rights Watch, told theGrio that she sees the reluctance to move on creating a reparations commission as “rooted in gatekeeping white supremacy” and not the “shared power of the people.”

“This should be something that we are all taking as a serious measure for the well-being of our democracy, for the well-being of our country,” said Heath. 

She also noted that there’s no “apology on the books” to Black Americans on behalf of the United States. “We know,” she added, “the majority of the federal government’s culpability in sanctioning torture and racial subjugation on Black people”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) speaks at a press conference on Nov. 16, 2021, about H.R. 40 legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. During the press conference, participants called on the legislation to be passed that would create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Perry said while action on reparations in Washington, D.C. have yet to materialize, it’s only a matter of time given the grassroots movements percolating elsewhere. “If reparations won’t come from D.C., it’ll go to D.C.,” he said. “At some point, Biden needs to take this up and treat it like a serious policy issue as it is.”

Perry noted that reparations could be implemented in a number of ways, especially when one looks at the myriad forms of reparations already being developed across the country. Regardless, he said, the repair should speak to the harm caused to Black people such as the inability to access and build wealth.  

“It might be, you know, some type of savings bond, it might be cash payment, it might be various land rights,” said Perry. “For instance, there’s a housing gap and one of the ways to close that housing gap is to provide down-payment assistance.” He said reparations could also come in the form of “various scholarships for higher education or free college” and eliminating student loan debt.

The movement for reparations is one that dates back decades. Daniels of NAARC is a longtime activist and political scientist. He also worked with the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who introduced the first reparations bill in 1989. Daniels said NAARC’s H.R. 40 strategy group has done a lot of the groundwork for the organized call to action for a reparations commission. The organization has been closely working with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who in this session of Congress introduced H.R. 40, a bill that builds on Conyers’ legislation more than 30 years ago. 

Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) speaks during press conference in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Getty Images)

“She has been phenomenal in this pushing and scrapping,” said Daniels, stressing that he is “honored” to be able to work alongside Congresswoman Jackson Lee. “I think that’s because she sees John Conyers looking down, smiling on her as she has taken the torch from one of the great progressive leaders of our era to push this over the finish line.”

Last Thursday, just days before Juneteenth  the federal holiday that Biden signed into law last year that commemorates the date (June 19) in 1865 when a Union Army general informed enslaved people in Texas that they were free activists held a press conference on the Ellipse in front of the White House. There, they erected a symbolic 150-foot flower and plant installation arranged in the shape of the Pan-African flag. The installation was intended to serve as a reminder to the Biden White House that there is work left to be done for a president who has centered racial equity throughout his administration and told Black voters, “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”

Daniels noted that an executive order from Biden would create a budget for a commission and would facilitate hearings to discuss what reparations would look like on the federal level. Ultimately, the commission would send those proposals to Congress.

Reparations, he said, are the “overarching policy prescription that will address the fundamental issue of white supremacy and structural institutional racism in this country.” Referencing the current Jan. 6 committee hearings, Daniels said, “[it] needs to be addressed now in the same way that we’re addressing the issues of the assault on democracy.”

He added, “They go hand-in-hand to some degree because the forces who are trying to destroy democracy are the same forces who are harboring this strong sentiment in terms of white supremacy and structural institutional racism.”

Heath of the Human Rights Watch told theGrio that there can be no racial reckoning in the United States without reparations. “You cannot reckon with the conditions without repairing them,” she said.  

Speaking to Biden and the need for him to unilaterally take up the issue of reparations, Heath said plainly, “There’s really no sides here.”

“There’s right and there’s wrong and there’s destruction and there’s repair … which one will [he] choose?”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Managing Editor of Politics and Washington Correspondent at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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