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House Panel To Consider Slavery Reparations Proposals


Back to American politics now. The House Judiciary Committee is planning to hold hearings this week on the issue of reparations for African Americans. Specifically, the bill would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States and then would make recommendations concerning, quote, "any form of apology and compensation," unquote.

The idea itself is not new. Former Representative John Conyers of Michigan first proposed the same bill 30 years ago and continued to reintroduce it every congressional session until his retirement in 2017. But the bill never gained traction. The first and last hearing was in 2007, and it never moved out of committee. But recently, the conversation surrounding reparations has been revived as more and more Democratic presidential candidates take up the issue in speeches and on the campaign trail.

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas reintroduced the reparations bill in the House earlier this year, and she's hosting the hearings. And she's with us now from Houston, Texas. Congresswoman, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: It's a pleasure to be with you. And thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: So this issue has been kind of dancing around the edges of political discourse for years now. I mean, Jesse Jackson made it part of his platform when he ran for president in 1988. And as we mentioned, your former colleague, Representative Conyers, reintroduced the bill in every congressional session for 25 years. But now it seems to be gaining some traction again. Why do you think that is?

JACKSON LEE: I frankly believe that there's something to elections - And this is a Democratic House with Democratic leadership - and also the times. And it is tragic, but it is real that we've seen an uptick in racial incidences - white supremacy, white nationalism. And so the question of slavery, frankly, has never been addressed, particularly from the institutional governmental perspective. And I've updated the language of the resolution, HR40, and that is that it is a commission to study and to engage in proposals, recommendations on the question of reparation.

And it really goes to, I think, more people understanding that 40 acres and a mule was a legitimate concept right after the Emancipation Proclamation, and that never happened. But yet cotton was king. It was an economic engine of the entire United States. And so the prominence of the United States today in the 21st century is grounded on the free brutal labor that Africans gave and their descendants.

MARTIN: I note that the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote a well-received essay in The Atlantic in 2014 called "The Case For Reparations," I understand that he's scheduled to testify. For people who read the piece, he laid out how discrimination deprived African Americans of the ability to achieve wealth or even economic stability. But the polls show that even though a lot of African Americans embrace the idea, a lot of white voters do not - in fact, that there's a very strong - almost, I would say, maybe visceral response against it on the part of many voters. The question I have for you is, I mean, you have a diverse district. How do you talk about this issue in such a way that you can get people to even consider it?

JACKSON LEE: My district is diverse. And I try to reach all of them where they are. And in the expression of this commission, I indicate that it's not done in anger. But it is done to acknowledge the original sin of this nation, and that is slavery. If I speak to my community and colleagues, they understand that maybe we can work together to end mass incarceration. The whole question of shoring up the array of historically black colleges, health disparities are very conspicuous, from diabetes to heart disease. All of those issues are de jour and de facto. And, by the way, this idea is now even more understood by millennials of all races.

MARTIN: So what I think I hear you saying is that reparations could take other forms other than a check to individuals. It could take the form of investment in HBCUs, for example, and addressing health disparities in a way that might be more politically palatable.

JACKSON LEE: Well, what I'm saying is we're not focusing on payments, but we are focusing on solutions. And obviously, many of the things that I've said takes money. But we believe that it can be done in a way that goes into these institutions. And we don't know if one of the solutions that will come forth from this commission, we don't know whether it will involve payments. But what we do know is that it has the ability through the federal government to be able to address all of the ills that unfortunately have plagued the community for a very, very long time.

MARTIN: That was Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. She's a Democrat. She represents a district in Texas. She's reintroduced a bill to establish a commission to study reparations for slavery and discrimination. A hearing will be held on June 19, Juneteenth, a historic day. And she joined us from Houston, Texas. Representative Jackson Lee, thank you so much for talking to us.

JACKSON LEE: It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you so very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.