On Wednesday the House Judiciary approved H.R. 40 — a reparations bill written more than 30 years ago. It’s a long-overdue but history-making step. The bill, which will form a commission to study the possibility of federal reparations, heads to the House floor as states, universities and private organizations across the country push for reparative action.
Below is one of three columns USA TODAY Opinion is publishing as part of an exploration of the national fight for reparations addressing systemic discrimination faced by the Black community.
Reparations are gaining ground, with measures passed in states including California, North Carolina and Vermont, and now in the city of Evanston, Illinois. While this progress is necessary, local initiatives aren’t enough on their own. Slavery was national policy, and its aftermath remains a national crisis.
Federal action is long overdue, but it could be on the horizon. The House Judiciary Committee voted for H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and propose ideas for reparations. Everyone from the civil rights community to Catholic priests to Ben & Jerry’s, and even a major U.S. bank, are supporting reparations initiatives.
Despite growing excitement about the bill — and its overwhelming popularity in the Black community — its passage isn’t guaranteed. That word “reparations” still scares a lot of people, including members of Congress. It scares them in part because they don’t understand what it is. They think that reparations is about cutting a check, when it’s really about repair for a community that has suffered enormously for centuries.
Reparations can mean fixing a policing system that disproportionately profiles, arrests and kills Black people; reforming an incarceration system that has disproportionately put Black people behind bars; changing an educational system that still segregates children based on race; addressing discrimination in housing that prevents Black people from qualifying for home loans or exposes them to predatory lenders; and yes, direct financial compensation.
Reparations isn’t what we should fear. The real nightmare is what has happened — and will unfold — in a nation that refuses to tend to those it has wounded. A failure to reckon with the past leaves a void that allows white supremacy to gain strength, from the steps of the U.S. Capitol to our own communities. It makes no sense to fear a world with reparations for Black Americans when we’ve already seen how terror proliferates in a world without it.
If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that white supremacy is still going strong. Many Americans never imagined they would see the horrors that white supremacists brought to Charlottesville, Virginia. They never thought they’d watch in real time a brazen mob full of white supremacists bringing zip ties, Confederate insignia and violence into the Capitol.
But most Black people know all too well that these crises aren’t anomalies. U.S. history is replete with examples of the government capitulating to, empowering and participating in white supremacy, at the expense of people who look like us.
Take the year 1850, when enslaved people were fleeing Southern plantations and seeking refuge in free states. In an effort to stave off a civil war, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which demanded that enslaved Africans be returned to their owners, even if they had escaped to states where slavery was outlawed.
An episode from Erika Alexander’s podcast “The Big Payback.”
The federal government calculated that selling Black people to the wolves was the only way to appease the South and keep the nation unified. That act of political cowardice backfired, of course, and the nation went to war anyway.
When the Civil War ended in April 1865, the federal government had an opportunity to do right by those it had kept in bondage. This Reconstruction period saw Black people, for the first time, owning land, casting votes and even winning public office in the South. The North’s fidelity to equal rights, however, proved short lived.
Amid a contested presidential election, Congress bowed to white supremacist pressure and brokered the Compromise of 1876, which put a Republican in the White House — but in return, it pulled federal troops out of the South and effectively ended Reconstruction. Rightfully coined by freed Black people as “the Great Betrayal,” the compromise allowed the former Confederacy to exact wide-scale retribution against the formerly enslaved.
White supremacy, rather than reparations, has always been the real monster, and its rampage didn’t stop with slavery. As Dreisen Heath of Human Rights Watch testified at February’s congressional reparations hearing, slavery was followed by post-emancipation lynchings, disenfranchisement, massacres, redlining, mass incarceration and other abuses that have given white people an unwarranted leg up as Black people continue fighting for full equity.
What reparations to Black American descendants of slavery might look like in the US
Lawmakers have been trying to pass reparation bills for descendants of slaves. Here’s why it’s taken so long – and how it might work.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
The systemic racism that continues after slavery should keep all Americans up at night. Centuries after racist slave patrols formed the foundation of American policing in the South, Black people are still disproportionately arrested and killed by law enforcement, and abusive police officers are rarely held to account.
The persistence of the racial wealth gap also highlights the need for change. The chasm between white and Black wealth is as large today as it was more than 50 years ago, and the COVID-19 health crisis has expanded it.
Concerns about a phantom reparations check should be redirected toward the very real racial disparities in health care, which desperately require repair. A new Harvard study finds that the pandemic is killing Black people at higher rates because of structural racism — and that providing reparations for the impact of slavery could have significantly curbed deaths and infections.
Misinformation about reparations and the refusal to pursue remedies for slavery is weakening the country as the threat of white supremacist extremism surges. U.S. intelligence agencies warned in recent days that white violent extremists are plotting attacks on civilians and the government. And an internal FBI report shows that white supremacists are joining police and military forces with plans for violence.
Congress needs to stop selling Black people out to appease those who want to destroy us. Reparations isn’t about cutting Black people a check. It’s about cutting us a break. Our elected leaders should finally stand up to white supremacy and set the country on the path of truth, repair and racial reconciliation without delay. With H.R. 40, the opportunity is there. All they have to do is grab it.
Erika Alexander is an actress, producer and host of podcast “The Big Payback.”
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, is a candidate for Ohio’s 11th Congressional district.