Black Democrats are pressing hard on party leaders to stage a reparations vote this month, citing the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre as impetus for Congress to launch a study into the delicate question of whether the country owes Black Americans restitution for slavery.
A number of Congressional Black Caucus members had visited Tulsa, Okla., late last month, joining President Biden at the site of the 1921 massacre in the Greenwood neighborhood then known as Black Wall Street. The lawmakers, though already pushing for a floor vote on the legislation, returned from the experience with a heightened urgency to see it done this summer.
“For those of us who went to Tulsa, it became even more apparent to us how important it is to pass H.R. 40 and to do so certainly before we leave for the August recess,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), citing the House bill number.
Johnson noted that neither the victims of Greenwood nor their descendants were ever compensated for their losses — not even from their own insurance companies — which has only lit a fire under reparations supporters to pass the bill this year.
“We came away united with the strong feeling that now is the time to do [it],” he said. “And so we will now address leadership with this newfound sense of energy and urgency.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), former head of the Black Caucus who was also in Tulsa, offered a similar assessment of the emotional visit, which included meetings between the lawmakers, descendants of victims and the three living survivors of the massacre.
“Tulsa is ground zero, I believe, in terms of raising the level of awareness, and the whys, and the importance of reparations and getting H.R. 40 passed,” she said. “We’re pushing hard. I don’t know of a date yet, but … I’m encouraging and urging and we’re hoping that this is seen as a priority and will be brought to the floor.”
Sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the Democrats’ reparations measure would create a commission charged with studying the long history of slavery in the United States — as well as the racial discrimination that followed the Civil War, up to today — and recommend ways to compensate living descendants. The bill would not provide direct payments to anyone, nor does it propose any other specific remedial policies.
In a historic vote, the House Judiciary Committee approved the legislation in April, setting the stage for a vote on the House floor.
Yet the issue is a tricky one for leaders of a diverse Democratic caucus, which is home to a number of moderate lawmakers wary of the potential political fallout of a reparations vote during a midterm election cycle that’s been historically perilous for the party of the incumbent president.
The politics of race, hyper-charged under former President Trump, are still roiling the country nearly six months after his departure from Washington. Among other thorny battles, lawmakers remain at odds over legislation designed to fight racial bias in law enforcement, and Republicans are hammering the Biden administration over its handling of the increase in migration at the southern border.
Republicans don’t appear ready to provide those Democratic moderates with any cover. Every GOP lawmaker on the Judiciary Committee had voted against the measure, largely out of concern that the outside commission would be stacked with Democrats and lead inevitably to astronomical cash payouts they say the Treasury can’t afford.
The partisan nature of the debate, combined with the concerns of moderate Democrats, means the legislation is hardly guaranteed passage if and when it does come to the floor. The legislation has 189 co-sponsors — all of them Democrats, most of them liberals — setting up what could be a divisive showdown between centrists and progressives at a time when leadership is fighting to hold the party together for the sake of passing Biden’s ambitious agenda.
The White House in February expressed support for studying the issue of reparations.
Jackson Lee says she’s been in close communication with Democratic leaders and remains confident the bill will hit the floor in the coming weeks.
“We’re still working with everyone, all the parties who have to make decisions, for a vote in June,” she said. “The time spent by the president in Tulsa regarding Greenwood was a very moving experience for all of us. And I couldn’t come away more positive about how we can try to find a good way of compromise to move a bill dealing with repair, and a study — that it’s not offensive to anyone to move it forward.”
Reparations supporters point to a host of reasons the study is necessary, citing vast discrepancies between the races across a swath of social arenas, including education, criminal justice, the accumulation of wealth and access to health care, a problem highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“You have generational trauma. All of this is manifested today in much of what the Black community is still living with,” said Lee. “And so this is a very important moment. It’s a day of reckoning, I think. And it’s time that this country live up to its promise of justice.”
“Conversations about H.R. 40 are ongoing, and Democratic Leadership and the White House are working together to chart a path forward,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said Monday in an email. “We will continue to discuss it with the Caucus.”
Black Caucus leaders, meanwhile, have other powerful allies in the effort.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he thinks the bill “ought to hit the floor” and the only stumbling block is “time allocation.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is also on board and actively urging floor consideration.
“We have to acknowledge our history if we are to try to address these issues,” she said.
Amid the debate, liberal supporters of reparations are increasingly pressing their moderate Democratic colleagues to shed their opposition to such a vote, even if the bill has virtually no chance of passing the Senate. They’re framing the effort as a moral imperative, not a political fight.
“It’s always going to be inconvenient, but now is the time,” said Johnson. “If you go back and look at the Tulsa situation and see how these people are still out there — have not been able to get redress for the wrongs that were done to them — I mean, if you can’t see reparations from that viewpoint, then you just don’t want to see reparation.”
Lee was even more terse.
“The time to do the right thing is always now,” she said. “If not now, you tell me when.”