By Barrington M. Salmon | Trice Edney Wire

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee

( – For the more than 400 years that Americans of African descent have been in America, Whites generally have never come to terms with enslaving millions of Black people – America’s original sin – or what to do with them in the aftermath. And in the years since chattel slavery ended, African-Americans have contended with and overcome formidable barriers to progress, including Jim Crow, de jure and de facto segregation, the Black Codes, deeply embedded racial discrimination and sytemic racism.

Although African-Americans were purportedly freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, they have never been totally free from being under the boot of white domination and supremacy. Racism is a shapeshifter enforced by lynchings, rapes, land theft and murder; chain gangs; racial terror dispensed by the Ku Klux Klan and an assortment of White domestic terror organizations, police officers, sheriffs and others in law enforcement. And more recently, racism and discrimination are seen in the form of mass incarceration and almost free prison labor; residential segregation; restrictive covenants; separate but equal schools and facilities; inferior or no education; and redlining.

That’s where H.R. 40 – The Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans – and Reparations comes in.   

“We have toiled and struggled, told our people to take the bag off your head because there’s misinterpretation in the whole community,” said Texas’ Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the driver of H.R. 40. “The study is the roadmap for the physical and mental trajectory of Reparations.”

Jackson-Lee chaired a House committee hearing on the bill on February 17 that allowed for a substantive discussion about Reparations and the movement toward the development and implementation of a palette of proposals designed to repair, compensate and heal Black people in the U.S. That discussion on reparations spilled over into a brain trust during the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. last week.

“There’s an economic basis for H.R. 40. It’s not frivolous. (Union Gen. William) Sherman talked about 40 acres and a mule, but we never got it,” Jackson Lee said. “Reconstruction was never completed. We endured Jim Crowism, hangings and George White being driven out of Congress in 1901. Legislatively, we’ll lead the formulation of this plan for African-Americans.”

Washington, DC attorney and author Nkechi Taifa argued that Reparations are necessary to satisfy an enormous debt unpaid to African-Americans.

“This is a demand for a formal acknowledgement of a historical wrong,” said Taifa, a Reparations advocate, justice system reform strategist, author and scholar.

Taifa, founder, principal and CEO of The Taifa Group LLC, said Reparations activists are demanding “official and unfettered apologies, recognition of injuries and the continuation of policies and practices in education and culture that continues today.”

Taifa, Jackson Lee and other panelists at the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend, said this involves a commitment from corporations, industries, educational institutions, state government, the Catholic Church and actual compensation in whatever form or forms agreed upon. But any advancement will only come from being audacious and applying persistent and pervasive pressure. Yet, she acknowledged that movement on this issue will be easier if Reparations doesn’t impede the progress of white people.

“There has to be an alignment of Black and White people. It has to serve the interests of white people,” Taifa asserted. “Morality has never been the province of White people. White people won’t be moved by moral considerations alone. White people act out of their own interests. Reparations is the only policy that comprehends this.”

The panelists, who spoke as a part of the Judiciary Braintrust hosted by Jackson Lee, argued that in 2022, Reparations is a necessary tool and remedy to substantially concentrate on reversing the vast Black/White wealth gap; the lack of access to a quality education; providing Black people access to decent, well-paying jobs; and elevating African-Americans on all the social metrics at which they are now at the bottom.

In practical terms, the panel added, Reparations will lift African Americans people out of poverty, eliminate redlining and force banks and other financial institutions to end extending subprime loans to Black and brown people, and pressure mortgage companies to begin to deal fairly and honesty with African Americans so they have easier access to homeownership and are not punished just for being Black when selling their homes.  

“I’m inspired by what’s happening in Congress these days,” said New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman. “We’re very close to having this pass in the House. It’s the first time in 30 years that the bill was voted out of committee. It was introduced for 30 years and never moved before. We had a markup and a vote. We’re in a moment of time where this is possible.”

Bowman, a progressive who entered Congress in 2018, reminded the audience that this November’s midterms are the most important and consequential in our lifetimes.

“The Jan 6 we saw the insurrection by White supremacists, the day after the first African American and Jew was elected to the US Senate,” Bowman said. “Whenever there’s progress, there’s backlash. November is absolutely the most important vote of our lives. If we keep the House in November and grow our numbers in the Senate, we can pass H.R. 40 by the end of the year …”

In actuality, Bowman said, “we all know we don’t need a commission to study Reparations,” because the evidence is clear on how deeply racism and discrimination has affected African Americans’ education, economics, health, wealth and homeownership. 

“We see the impact of slavery. It lives in the body and cells of Black people. There has been no truth, no racial healing,” said Bowman. “(But) we continue to succeed despite White supremacist colonial settlers. This needs to be done. White supremacy has run its course. It’s destroying democracy, the planet and ultimately will destroy humanity.”

A crucial element to counter that is Reparations, Bowman added. “H.R. 40 is the first step of saving ourselves.” 

Proponents of reparations say their argument is straightforward: America — through more than 200 years of slavery — built its wealth on the labor and very existence of enslaved black men, women and children. The century that followed emancipation saw the creation of policies that discriminated against Black people and largely excluded them from wealth building, creating an inherited disadvantage for future generations. Reparations, its supporters say, provides redress for both the original sin of slavery and America’s subsequent failure to address generations’ worth of accrued disadvantage in black communities.

Damario Solomon-Simmons – a Tulsa attorney who has been representing the three remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre and plaintiffs, Viola “Mother” Fletcher, 107, Lessie “Mother” Benningfield, 106, and 101-year-old Hughes Van Ellis – told the audience, “Reparations is owed, Reparations is due, Reparations Now!”

“I have some good news: we have living survivors, photos, videos and thousands of documents,” said Solomon-Simmons. “We made history on May 2. We were the first survivors decreed to move our case forward of more than 100 plaintiffs. When that happened, Rep. Johnson Lee was sitting in the front row with 300 people. We need Reparations for enslavement, Jim Crow. We don’t a study … Biden can sign an executive order. There’s nothing stopping him because we need Reparations. Reparations owed, Reparations Due, Reparations Now!!!”

The survivors, through Solomon-Simmons, are seeking substantive justice and reparations from Tulsa city leaders and the state for the 1921 massacre of at least 300 African Americans, in Tulsa, and demanding that these entities deliver justice, financial and emotional repair and avoid reducing the tragedy to mere symbolism. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, White mobs attacked a Black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, leaving around 300 dead and 10,000 homeless, in one of the worst massacres in American history. The mob also bombed and razed 36 square blocks of businesses, homes and other property with the damage to real estate and personal property amounting to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $34.18 million in 2021) to Tulsa’s Greenwood District, also known as the Black Wall Street, then the site of a prosperous African American community.

Cornell William Brooks, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School, dispelled the oft-cited myth that granting African Americans Reparations is an aberration.

“There are a great many studies about harm and repair is regular and routine,” said Brooks, an attorney and former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“Data suggests that reparations is commonplace. For example, veteran’s injuries, losing property, bad vaccines and when farmers lose their crops. Reparations is not aberrational but is a customary means of redress.”