Sen. Cory Booker said in a panel that the U.S. needs to address "persistent inequalities" experienced by African Americans by discussing reparations, the idea that the descendants of slaves should be compensated for the injustices and cruelty their ancestors experienced.
Booker said that the nation has "yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country's founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality. These disparities don't just harm black communities, they harm all communities."
A House Judiciary subcommittee debated H.R. 40, a bill that would study how the U.S. would implement reparations to black Americans, amid a national conversation about what the federal government owes descendants of slaves. Booker, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Danny Glover were among the witnesses who testified before the panel.
The panel took place on "Juneteenth," a holiday which commemorates the day of emancipation for slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, as well as the general emancipation of all slaves. A few hundred people lined up outside the doors of the hearing room before it began, including a line of people raising their fists in the black power symbol. Dozens of people were ushered into the overflow room to view the hearing on video. The audience in the hearing was vocal, often applauding or booing certain witnesses.
The panel took place the day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he believed rights for black Americans had advanced enough to render reparations unnecessary.
"I don't think that reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing land mark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president," McConnell said. McConnell once made it his mission to make President Obama a one-term president, and worked to block legislation supported by Obama throughout his tenure.
As the witness in the first panel, Booker emphasized the significance of H.R. 40.
"This is a very important hearing. It is historic. It is urgent," Booker, who has introduced the Senate version of the bill, said. He argued that black Americans deserve compensation not only for slavery, but for the legacy of domestic terrorism against black people post-Civil War, segregation, as well as for redlining, a practice used by mortgage providers that kept black people from obtaining mortgages.
"We as a nation must address these persistent inequalities," Booker said. "It's about time we find common ground and common purpose to deal with this ugly history."
Booker's proposed American Opportunity Accounts Act, commonly known as "baby bonds," would provide every child born in the United States with a $1,000 savings bond, regardless of race. The child would receive an additional deposit from the government every year, with those in the poorest families receiving up to $2,000. The child would be able to access the account at age 18, and only for allowable uses, like education and home ownership. The idea of the proposal is to help reduce the racial income inequality gap.
The second panel included several experts on reparations to testify. Coates wrote the seminal 2014 essay in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations," which stirred interest in reparations among reporters and politicians.
"It's impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery," Coates said, noting that much of the economy of the early United States was dependent on slavery, which required "torture, rape and child trafficking."
"For a century after the Civil War, black people were subject to a relentless campaign of terror," Coates continued, saying that while "it is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from slavery," the legacy of slavery and discrimination were tied together and justified recompense. He also argued the "federal government was deeply complicit" not only in slavery, but in implementing policies like redlining and segregation.
Coates specifically condemned McConnell, noting that the Senate majority leader was alive for much of the violence against black Americans during the civil rights movement, and so could not consider discrimination a problem of the past.
"Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion," Coates said. "Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they'd love a word with the majority leader."
Glover also testified, saying he was the great-grandson of a woman who was enslaved and freed by the emancipation proclamation, whom he met as a child. "This hearing is yet another important step in the long and heroic struggle of African Americans" to obtain equality, Glover said.
"White America must recognize that justice for black people can not be achieved without radical change to the structure of our society," Glover continued.
Other witnesses included Katrina Browne, a white woman descended from the largest slave-trading family in the U.S. Browne said that most white Americans are unaware of how implicated the North and the Midwest were in slavery, and instinctually want to avoid a sense of shame connected to their ancestors and their countries.
Another witness, black freelance writer Coleman Hughes, said that he was opposed to reparations for all descendants of slaves. He suggested reparations should be paid to those who lived under Jim Crow.
"The people who are owed for slavery are no longer here," Hughes said. His testimony received boos from the mostly black audience. After his testimony, one man in the audience stood up and loudly expressed his opposition as he left.
"It's time to go. I can't listen to that. That's garbage," the man said.
Another black opponent of reparations, former NFL player Burgess Owens, argued it was possible to achieve the American dream through hard work. He also briefly alluded to the influx of illegal immigrants over the border, saying illegal immigration "hurts our race."
However, the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, an Episcopal bishop for the diocese of Maryland, said it was important to have the debate between conflicting opinions. He noted his majority-white diocese had taken up discussing reparations for the role of the Episcopal Church in the area in abetting slavery, and if his community could have this debate, so could the nation.
"Reparations simply means to repair that which is broken. It is not just about monetary compensation," Sutton said. Coates later disagreed, saying that "cutting a check" should be part of the conversation.
Sutton also pushed back against Owens' opinion that black Americans need to be in control of their own future, saying the idea that one only needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps "is a lie."
Economist Julianne Malveaux argued that all white people benefited from the fruits of slavery, even if they or their ancestors were not involved.
"It's more than time for us to deal with the injustices that African Americans not only have experienced in history but continue to experience," Malveaux said. "Enslavement is the foundation on which this country was built." Malveaux also argued that it wasn't enough to simply provide compensation to low-income Americans of all races, but to specifically focus on the racial economic inequality.
"Racism and slavery was our original sins, and we've got to deal with reparations by dealing exactly with that," Malveaux said, arguing that reparations needed to be a separate issue from just assisting all low-income Americans. "Let's not forget that race is central to anything we do related to economic inequality."
Malveaux later complained that not enough questions about racial inequality were being directed to experts like her, an economist with deep knowledge in the subject area. She also said that the tone of the hearing was too "kumbaya."
"I want y'all Congress people to deal with economic structure," Malveaux said. "I'm frustrated about the tone that some of this has taken."
Marveaux told CBS News after the hearing that she believed it was "a step forward," adding that she hoped that the discussion Wednesday would eventually lead to legislation to close the wealth gap.
"I was frustrated by some of the Republican witnesses who obviously were going to do the soft-shoe shuffling around, 'We pulled ourselves up' -- everyone has pulled themselves up. That's not the point. The point is to deal with issues of economic structure," she said.
H.R. 40, which was named for the post-Civil War promise of "40 acres and a mule" as compensation for former slaves, has languished in the House since former Rep. John Conyers first introduced it in 1989. But Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced the bill in January. Reparations used to be a fringe idea — at least among white politicians — but it's been receiving. Many of the declared Democratic presidential candidates have staked a position on reparations, or at least support having a national conversation about the issue.
Jackson Lee said in her opening remarks that H.R. 40 would be a "long overdue" response to slavery.
"Slavery is the original sin. Slavery has never received an apology," Jackson Lee said, adding that "black people in America are the descendants of Africans kidnapped and transported to the United States" under the auspices of the federal government, as was segregation. Therefore, Jackson Lee said, it was up to the federal government to provide reparations.
When Jackson Lee opened her line of questioning at the end of the panel, she received applause and cheers from the audience.
"Let this day, June 19, 2019, be the marker for the commitment for each and everyone of you who have come to support (the bill)," Jackson Lee said. She urged Hughes and Owens to "read the bill."
In her questioning, Rep. Karen Bass said that the denial of discrimination that black Americans face was damaging, and argued that reparations were being "trivialized" as black people wanting money.
"Everyone understands the pain caused by denial of the Holocaust. Deep pain is caused by this," Bass said.
Few Republican members of the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties attending the hearing. The ranking member of the subcommittee, GOP Rep. Mike Johnson, said in his opening statement that it would be difficult to provide financial compensation to black Americans for the actions undertaken by a "small" subset of slave-owning Americans. A few members of the audience scoffed, asking, "Small?" Johnson also said that reparations would be "unconstitutional on its face," eliciting boos and hisses from the audience.
GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert used most of his questioning time to note that historically members the Democratic Party had supported slavery and implemented much of the policies under Jim Crow. The audience repeatedly interrupted Gohmert, at one point with a man shouting, "You lie!"
Separately on Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham said that he did not know "where it stops" if one implements reparations.
"I just think we are so far removed from the event, it was the original sin of the country. I think let's just make it a more perfect union rather than look backward because I don't know where it stops when you do that," Graham said. "We're not a perfect country but we're trying to form a more perfect union and I don't think this helps."