Shortly after entering office, President Joe Biden (D) reiterated his pledge to tackle systemic racism by increasing lending to Black entrepreneurs and launching infrastructure projects to spur employment.
For proponents of reparations, however, few, if any, other options exist to reverse the long-term effects of chattel slavery, segregation, redlining and other institutional practices that have long placed Black people at the bottom of the American caste system.
“We have to be the ones who say this is what we want and why it’s necessary,” Kenniss Henry, the legislative commission co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations (NCOBRA), told The Informer.
Henry said that time is of the essence for Black people, especially with House Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s reintroduction of H.R. 40 on the first day of the 117th congressional session in January. Days later, Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) introduced a copy of H.R. 40, designated as S.B. 40, with 15 cosponsors.
Given these circumstances, NCOBRA’s leadership has organized around raising awareness about H.R. 40 and pressuring lawmakers to pass the bill. As part of an effort to meet this goal, NCOBRA has forged partnerships with the American Civil Liberties Union, Movement for Black Lives, Color of Change, Center for American Progress and Institute of the Black World 21st Century.
Henry credited this collaborative strategic planning group with a compelling more than 170 lawmakers to cosponsor H.R. 40 during the previous legislative session and 157 congressmen and women doing the same this year.
“There are 230 years’ worth of wealth gaps between Blacks and whites,” she said.
“We have to make sure our legislators deliver; remember, our ancestors worked 256 years of forced free labor and endured 100 years of Jim Crow treatment during which time we did not enjoy intergenerational wealth,” Henry continued.
“If reparations is not on the legislative agenda, it could come down to an executive order from the president that directs a commission to do what’s in the legislation itself. We have to be vigilant all the time,” she said.
Setting the Tone, Locally
A study published in The Review of Black Political Economy in 2020 estimated that reparations for chattel slavery and other injustices committed against African Americans would cost more than $12 trillion.
Those findings would be derived from what researchers calculated as the value of lost freedom, lost opportunity and pain and suffering.
In the wake of protests that erupted after the police-involved deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, lawmakers in cities across the country either introduced or passed legislation for the payment of reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans in their jurisdiction.
This phenomenon transpired a year after the House Judiciary Committee conducted what had been described as a historic hearing on H.R. 40 that featured some of the foremost scholars and organizers on the subject.
Just blocks away from the White House, the D.C. Council has also been at work to redress the wrongs done against enslaved Africans and their descendants living in the nation’s capital.
Earlier this year, D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) introduced the Reparations Foundation Fund and Task Force Establishment Act of 2021.
If passed, this legislation, which goes a step further than a version introduced during the previous council session, would launch a reparations task force, establish a reparations fund and require the commissioner of the D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking to establish a database revealing insurance policies that provided coverage for injured or deceased enslaved people.
McDuffie, chair of the council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development, expressed plans to conduct a hearing on the Reparations Foundation Fund and Task Force Establishment Act sometime this year. He cited housing insecurity and a persistent wealth gap plaguing Black D.C. residents as key impetuses for this legislation.
While McDuffie remained confident that the Biden administration would do its part to advance racial equity on the federal level, he said that the D.C. Council must set the pace locally for such a mission.
“President Joe Biden was sworn in as senator in 1973 and the District has changed drastically since then. It has changed as well since Vice President Kamala Harris walked the yard at Howard University,” McDuffie told The Informer.
“Thousands of Black residents have been displaced over the decades and the racial wealth gap has only worsened, so it’s my hope that this administration will continue its efforts so that 20 years from now, we can all be proud that one’s race and zip code will no longer predict their success in Washington, D.C.,” he said.