In 1989 U.S. Representative John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., introduced H.R. 40: The Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act. H.R. 40 wasn’t legislation to redress any grievance. The bill requested appropriations for a study so its findings could start a national dialogue.
During the decade of the 90’s H.R. 40 wasn’t mentioned by mainstream Black leaders, but in 2000 “reparations for slavery” became a controversial topic due to Randall Robinson’s new book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. (Notice: The controversy was over the concept of “reparations for slavery” not H.R. 40.) Robinson wrote, “Our society must first be brought to a consensus that it wants to close the socioeconomic gap between the races. It must accept that the gap derives from the social depredations of slavery. Once and for all, America must…accept full responsibility for the hardships it has occasioned for so many.”
Now, many Whites wanted to know why they had to pay for an injustice they didn’t inflict. Robinson stated it was moral justice. This response seemed based on the assumption that the question was motivated by unconscious racism, but what if it was a serious inquiry concerning jurisprudence?
First of all, no citizen of a modern state is opposed to reparations. The idea that the perpetrator of an injustice should pay the victim for damages is a well established legal principle dating back to ancient times. But “reparations for slavery” is a different proposition. It redefines the traditional principle. It extents guilt to and demands payment from the descendents of perpetrators, who committed no crime, to compensate the descendents of the victims, who were never enslaved.
Now, Whites weren’t asking because they didn’t grasp the morality of the issue. (Moral support doesn’t cost.) They asked because they needed the redefining of reparations explained. That’s a legitimate concern that proponents for reparations have failed to address beyond moral grandstanding.
And for another decade Rep. John Conyers reintroduced H.R. 40 to congress and the legislation was never enacted. But in 2014 the topic of “reparations for slavery” was reintroduced to the public by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a celebrated article called, The Case for Reparations: Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts America will never be whole.
Coates and Robinson are from different generations but the questions from Whites concerning payment and principle are the same.
Earlier in 2017 Coates address an audience at Harvard University. Coates stated during his many speaking engagements there’s always a White person in the crowd that says he or she has roots in the South and their great, great, great, so and so didn’t own any slaves, and these Whites wanted to know why they should be held responsible. Coates stated he repeats time and time again to these Whites that it may be true that their great, great, great so and so didn’t own any slaves but they wanted to.
Once again a legitimate concern is not addressed, and if the questions were asked in good faith Coates lost the opportunity to make a serious case for reparations. And to make matters worse, recently Rep. John Conyers announced his resignation from office because of allegations of sexual harassment.
Representative Conyers reintroduced H.R. 40 to every Congress from 1989 to 2017. So after 2017 will a colleague of Conyers continue to reintroduce H.R. 40 to congress, and if so who will take it seriously?
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier. He blogs at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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