US House panel studies slavery reparations ahead of key vote

Washington (AFP) –


A US congressional panel debates Wednesday whether to consider federal slavery reparation payments to African Americans, ahead of a historic first vote on an issue gaining momentum during the nation's racial reckoning.

The House Judiciary Committee launches its first-ever markup -- the process by which committees debate and amend legislation -- of a bill that creates a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for Black people.

It faces major challenges in Congress, where no Republicans have joined the more than 150 Democratic sponsors of the bill.

The first version was introduced more than 30 years ago but never advanced. It addresses the period of slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present day, and would establish a commission that will study and propose remedies including financial reparations.

House Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, the bill's chief sponsor, said such a commission was long overdue.

"Through this legislation, we will finally be able to confront the stark societal disparities occurring in the African-American community today and provide solutions," she said in a statement.

Lee was among several members of the Congressional Black Caucus who met Tuesday with President Joe Biden, in part to discuss the study of reparations.

"He is committed" to the bill, she told reporters.

Tuesday's congressional debate comes during the high-profile trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with the murder of George Floyd.

The African-American man's death last May triggered nationwide protests highlighting the country's racial injustice.

It also follows the recent police shooting death of another Black man near Minneapolis, whom the police force say was killed by accident when an officer intending to use her taser instead used her handgun.

- 'Systemic' discrimination -

Approximately four million Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the original colonies and the United States between 1619 and 1865, in what the bill described as "an immoral and inhumane" deprivation of Africans' life and liberty

The bill also said that in the decades following slavery, the US government helped create "persistent systemic structures of discrimination on living African Americans."

Black Americans continue to suffer "debilitating economic, educational, and health hardships" compared to their white counterparts, the bill notes, including an unemployment rate more than twice that of whites, and an average of less than 1/16 of the wealth of white families.

Last month, local lawmakers in Evanston, Illinois voted to give funds to Black residents as a form of reparations for housing discrimination, thereby becoming the first US city to take such action.

Under the plan, residents who qualify will receive $25,000 to use towards home improvements or mortgage assistance.

The move has been closely followed and could become a model for elsewhere in the United States as racial injustice has risen up the political and public agenda.

The reparations bill faces an uphill climb. Should the judiciary committee advance the measure, it would likely receive a floor vote in the House.

The Senate hurdle is higher. At least 10 Republicans would need to join all 50 Democrats in order for the bill to pass the chamber.

When the issue was last debated in 2019, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said it was not a "good idea" to institute reparations for wrongs that occurred so long ago.

"No one currently alive was responsible for that," he said.