A bill to study reparations for slavery had momentum in Congress, but still no vote Legislation to create a commission to study reparations faces steep odds in the evenly divided Congress. Advocates want the House to take up the bill, or for President Biden to act on his own.

A bill to study reparations for slavery had momentum in Congress, but still no vote

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A bill to study reparations for slavery advanced through a House committee for the first time this year. But seven months later, it still hasn't seen action by the full House. Supporters are pushing for that to happen this year, but as NPR's Juana Summers reports, Democrats are now reeling from off-year election losses, and they're facing fresh Republican attacks on issues of race and culture ahead of next year's midterms.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Congressman John Conyers of Michigan first introduced the bill to study reparations in 1989 and did so every year after that for nearly three decades. Here's Conyers, who died a few years ago, speaking at a rally in 2002.


JOHN CONYERS: Reparations now, reparations not in the next century, not in 2185.

SUMMERS: It would be nearly another 20 years before the bill would gain political traction in the middle of a national reckoning over race in the U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat.

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: I don't think anyone could argue against the fact that the trajectory of slavery has gone through the centuries, the decades and in the DNA of the descendants of enslaved Africans, and America would do well to try to bring a healing and a repair to this in this time and in this century.

SUMMERS: The bill would establish a commission to study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination from before the founding of the United States to present day. The commission would submit its findings to Congress and recommend appropriate remedies. Congressman Jamaal Bowman made reparations part of his pitch when he ran for Congress in New York.


JAMAAL BOWMAN: We haven't taken a moment to stop and pause and reflect and look ourselves in the mirror as a country and really be honest with ourselves about how those harms continue to persist.

SUMMERS: Some opponents argue that it's inappropriate to pursue reparations for slavery which no one currently alive is responsible for. Congressman Burgess Owens of Utah, one of two Black Republicans currently in the House, spoke at a hearing on the bill.


BURGESS OWENS: Reparation, where you take people's money that they've earned, is punishment. It's theft. It's judgment. It's saying that because of your skin color, you owe me. That is not the American way.

SUMMERS: But Jackson Lee says arguments like this miss the point.

JACKSON LEE: It is not the study of getting a check. It is not giving you a check. It is to study slavery and develop reparation proposals which would create, first of all, the platform for understanding.

SUMMERS: Ultimately, the bill advanced out of committee with Republicans united in opposition. But House leadership still hasn't brought it up for a vote. Kamm Howard is a co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.

KAMM HOWARD: The Democratic leaders are saying that they're scared, but they're scared if they move this legislation today that it would hurt their chances of keeping the control of your Congress.

SUMMERS: Democrats are coming off of a series of bruising off-year elections. The party lost the Virginia governor's race, which prominently featured a right-wing backlash over how race and racism is addressed in schools. H.R. 40 has overwhelming support from House Democrats, though it's not likely to pass the Senate. Some Democrats may be hesitant to back a bill that they fear Republicans could weaponize against them in the midterms, even if it can't pass. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about President Biden's position on the bill in June.


JEN PSAKI: He, of course, supports a study of reparations and feels that would be the best next step.

SUMMERS: She stopped short of saying he backs this bill. White House aides do say breaking down systemic racism is at the heart of all the administration does. But so far, the White House hasn't said anything about one thing some supporters say the president could do - establish a commission on reparations on his own. Jackson Lee says she's hopeful that H.R. 40 will get a vote, but said that she believes Biden would receive a standing ovation if he stepped out to create the commission the bill calls for. Juana Summers, NPR News.

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