By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO, mgray@afro.com

History was made on Capitol Hill on this year’s Juneteenth, when, for the first time since Reconstruction, Congress heard arguments for reparations for descendants of slaves.

On June 19, the House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held its first hearing to examine the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade its continued impact on the community and the path to restorative justice. 

In January, Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee introduced the {HR-40 Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act}. The bill would esablish a commission to study the question of reparations for descendents of slavery.

In a historic hearing that fell on Juneteenth, several well-known activists such as actor Danny Glover (right) and author Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke before Congress on the topic of reparations for the descendants of slaves. (AP Photo)

 However, before last week’s hearings began, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) laid the foundation against reparations for Black Americans.

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago when none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” McConnell said. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.”

However, historically when the nation has recognized its failings toward minority groups they have been compensated in some form.

Japanese and Jewish Americans received a form of reparations for the plights they’ve had to overcome for the suffering of their ancestors. The U.S. government paid more than $1.6 billion (equivalent to $3,390,000,000 in 2018) in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned in camps during World War II. 

In 2015, President Barack Obama’s administration helped broker a deal that awarded $12 million for assistance to Holocaust survivors from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Jewish Federations of North America.

The allocation, which is still currently being disbursed over a five-year agreement, is part of an initiative launched in late 2013 by current Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden that was designed to address the needs of survivors in the United States who were living below the poverty line.

Hundreds of people went to Capitol Hill and stood outside the hearing room while filling the overflow area on June 19 to watch a collection of Black activists, politicians and celebrities deliver passionate arguments in support of reparations.   

“White America must recognize that justice for Black people cannot be achieved without radical change to the structure of our society,” said actor and activist Danny Glover. Glover also called reparations  “a moral, democratic and economic imperative.”

Economist and commentator Dr. Julianne Malveaux added that reparations are crucial for Black communities that have been neglected because of the wealth gap facing the nation.

“When zip code determines what kind of school that you go to, when zip code determines what kind of food you eat — these are the vestiges of enslavement that a lot of people don’t want to deal with,” said Malveaux.

Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates advanced the debate farther by citing generational iniquities that must be addressed to give Black Americans a greater chance at levelling the field for social and economic coexistence. 

 “Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores,” Coates said. “When it ended, this country could have extended its hollow principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all.”

 “We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance. And the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance,” Coates said. “It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.”