BY ELIZABETH THOMPSON
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS
WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas is renewing a 30-year congressional push to establish a commission that would study the impact of slavery and possible reparations for African Americans.
Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, started the effort with House Resolution 40
in 1989 but garnered little support. This year, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act has 162 co-sponsors. At the end of the last Congress, the bill had 173 co-sponsors.
The bill would form a commission to study slavery and the racial and economic discrimination that continued after slavery and to recommend solutions to Congress. It was named H.R. 40 after a promise Congress made to formerly enslaved people at the end of the Civil War — that they would receive “40 acres and a mule.”
In a hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Lee, a Democrat, said African Americans “have been known as overcomers.”
“We believe in overcoming the many bad balls that we have been thrown. We’ve caught them, and we’ve kept on going,” she said. But that isn’t the point of the bill, Lee said.
“Hidden in the corners of this nation are those of African American heritage, the descendants of enslaved Africans, who have felt the sting of disparities. They continue to feel that sting,” Lee said.
“Now more than ever, the facts and circumstances facing our nation demonstrate the importance of H.R. 40, and the necessity of placing our nation on the path to reparative justice.”
As anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd last summer proliferated across the country, calls for reparations increased.
Black people have been among the hardest hit American minority groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, with about one in 645 Black Americans dying from the coronavirus since February, according to the latest data from the American Public Media Research Lab. About one in 825 White Americans have died.
Still, White Americans are receiving vaccines at higher rates than Black Americans.
Opposition by Walker
A peer-reviewed study from Harvard Medical School found that reparations for slavery could have reduced the number of deaths from COVID-19. President Joe Biden, during the presidential primaries, supported forming a commission to investigate reparations.
The measure does not yet have any Republican co-sponsors.
Herschel Walker, the former Dallas Cowboys running back and Heisman Trophy winner who supported former President Donald Trump, was one of two Black witnesses against creating the commission.
“Is it not creating division, a separation, with different races?” Walker said. “I feel it continues to let us know we’re still African American, rather than just American.”
Walker, who owns a home in Westlake, testified that African Americans are looking for a “hand up, not a handout,” and he called for improvements to education for Black Americans instead of reparations.
“I’m from the Deep South, I know about racism,” Walker said. “And I overcame through education, which is one of the major things that I’ve talked to young people about today. Education is more important than anything in life, because when you educate yourself, you’re able to see the truth for yourself.”
‘Learn, educate and eliminate’ Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas and an original co-sponsor of the bill, called in to the virtual hearing from a hotel room because of the weather emergency in Texas.
“We are stronger when we unite,” she said. “But to do so, we must first learn, educate and eliminate the root causes of racial discrimination. In order to form a more perfect union, we cannot keep ignoring this as a country. We must act, and I urge everyone to support this bill.”
Legislation urging support for congressional action on reparations also was pushed by Democrats in the Texas Legislature in 2019.