US Congress panel backs slavery reparations for African Americans

Historic first vote to follow on issue that divides Democrats and Republicans

(FILES) In this file photo a demonstrator waves an American flag with the words "Not Free" painted on it in front of the Washington Monument during a Juneteenth march and rally in Washington, DC, on June 19, 2020. A US congressional panel debates on April 14, 2021 whether to consider federal slavery reparation payments to African Americans, ahead of a historic first vote on an issue gaining momentum during the nation's racial reckoning. The House Judiciary Committee launches its first-ever markup -- the process by which committees debate and amend legislation -- of a bill that creates a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for Black people.
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A US congressional panel has voted in favour of a bill that if ratified would form a federal commission to consider and dispurse reparations to African Americans for the historic injustice of slavery faced by their ancestors.

After hours of late-night discussions on Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee voted in favour of setting up the commission, moving it to a wider vote in Congress on an issue gaining momentum during the nation's racial reckoning.

The bill faces major challenges in a closely divided Congress, where no Republicans have joined its more than 150 Democratic sponsors.

The first version of the bill was introduced more than 30 years ago but never advanced. It addresses the period of slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present day, and would establish a commission that will study and propose remedies including financial reparations.

House Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, the bill's chief sponsor, said such a commission would be a long-overdue effort to confront the stark societal disparities occurring in black communities today, and recommend solutions.

It would provide a "road map for the truth of the brutality and the onerous and terrible burden placed on African Americans, and this nation, by slavery," she told the committee.

Ms Lee, who is black, also delivered a message to her Republican colleagues: "Do not cancel us tonight."

"Do not ignore the pain, the history and the reasonableness of this commission."

President Joe Biden met members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House on Tuesday, where they discussed the reparations issue.

Ms Lee, who attended the meeting, said Biden remained "committed" to the bill.

Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler said the legislation is intended to "begin a national conversation about how to confront the brutal mistreatment of African Americans during chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the enduring structural racism that remains endemic to our society today."

White tulips bloom across Constitution Avenue in front of the US Capitol building in Washington, DC. Getty
White tulips bloom across Constitution Avenue in front of the US Capitol building in Washington, DC. Getty

But he stressed that the measure makes no conclusion about how to properly atone for and make recompense for slavery, segregation and their shameful legacy.

Republicans acknowledged the evils of slavery, but they nonetheless spoke out against the legislation, with some criticising the commission's expected $20 million cost.

"I would very much caution against going down this road," House Republican Chip Roy told the session.

"It takes us away from the important dream of judging people by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin."

Wednesday's debate came during the high-profile trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with the murder of George Floyd.

Approximately four million Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the original colonies and the United States between 1619 and 1865, a history that some politicians described in the Wednesday discussion as "the original sin" of the United States.

The bill says that in the decades following slavery, the government helped create "persistent systemic structures of discrimination on living African Americans."

Black Americans continue to suffer "debilitating economic, educational, and health hardships" compared to white Americans, the bill notes, including an unemployment rate more than twice that of whites, and an average of less than 1/16 of the wealth of white families.

Last month, local lawmakers in Evanston, Illinois voted to give funds to black residents as a form of reparations for housing discrimination, thereby becoming the first US city to take such action.

Under the plan, qualifying residents will receive $25,000 to use towards home improvements or mortgage assistance.

The move could become a model for other US communities as racial injustice has risen up the political and public agenda.

Should the judiciary committee advance the measure, it would likely receive a floor vote in the House.

But the Senate hurdle is higher. At least 10 Republicans would need to join all 50 Democrats in order for the bill to pass the chamber.