HR. 40 – Why Reparations Should Be Studied
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee

HR. 40 – Why Reparations Should Be Studied

The History of House Bill 40

Since 1989, former Representative John Conyers repeatedly introduced HR. 40. A bill that would establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery in the U.S. and its early colonies, and recommend appropriate remedies.

The beginning of the bill states it is –

To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

Needless to say, the bill repeatedly failed. For many decades even predating Conyers, the issue of reparations for Black descendants of slaves simply wasn’t taken seriously. Many of the same anti-reparations arguments you will hear today have been echoed for years.

Conyers resigned in December of 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee has picked up the torch and she reintroduced the bill in January of this year. 

Now a fresh group of young, strong Progressives are now in the new 116th Congress. Demographics have also changed a lot since 1989 when Conyers first introduced HR. 40. Rep. Lee now has a bill that actually has legs! 

Practically all of the announced Presidential candidates have said that they’d support House Bill 40 if it hits their desk as President of the United States. Why is this happening now though? What has changed?

Properly Understanding the Extent of the Damage Done

There are those who attack HR. 40 because of the emphasis placed on the ‘studying’ of slavery. For many Black Americans, some of us are well-versed enough in this dark legacy that we already know all that we may care to. We know enough to know that there is a price to be paid.

However, what we may know as individuals is not legally or politically-binding. What HR. 40 does is places what we know about our history on a political foundation. It says “this is what happened and this is the damage that’s been done…officially.” 

Expanding the Scope Beyond Slavery

There is a valid criticism of HR. 40, however. While Black and Intellectual supports the bill for sure, we have to be careful not to limit the scope of such an important study. The introductory text of the bill that can be read online states that the bill addresses the years between 1619 and 1865. It is imperative that it is made clear that organized anti-Black policies have been enacted well past 1865. The House Bill acknowledges this fact in Section 2, Number 5 where it states –

Following the abolition of slavery the United States Government, at the Federal, State, and local level, continued to perpetuate, condone and often profit from practices that continued to brutalize and disadvantage African-Americans, including share cropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow, redlining, unequal education, and disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

So while HR. 40 does acknowledge post-slavery history, factoring in the totality of that history appears to be outside of the scope of the bill. This is actually critical if we want a truly complete understanding of white supremacy in America.

HR. 40 is merely the beginning, it is not the end. Assembling a Commission to study reparations is actually a good thing. 

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