John ConyersCongressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) has re-introduced H.R. 40, the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” for the 111th Congress.

This legislation is enthusiastically supported by several DeWolf family members who appear in Traces of the Trade, and Rep. Conyers prominently mentioned our documentary when he introduced the bill. He is also a long-time supporter of our work, having flown to Park City, Utah last year to appear at the film’s world premiere on Martin Luther King Day at the Sundance Film Festival.

In his remarks introducing H.R. 40, Rep. Conyers invoked Traces of the Trade as an illustration of our society’s continuing need to grapple with the sin of slavery. He also mentioned the Episcopal Church’s apology for slavery in October, which was brought about in part because of our advocacy at General Convention in 2006, which is shown in Traces of the Trade.

Conyers summarized the purpose of H.R. 40 in these words:

Attempts to eradicate today’s racial discrimination and disparities will be successful when we understand the past’s racial injustices and inequities. A commission can take us into this dark past and bring us into a brighter future.

H.R. 40 and related legislation

Rep. Conyers has introduced H.R. 40 in every Congress since 1989, making this the 20th anniversary of the bill. In the last Congress, however, there were several notable achievements related to this legislation, suggesting that substantial progress on the bill may be likely in this Congress.

In July, the House issued a formal apology for slavery and Jim Crow, and committed itself to “rectify the lingering consequences” of that history. The House and Senate also passed legislation in the last Congress to establish a commission to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

Meanwhile, H.R. 40 was itself the subject of its first congressional hearing, with witnesses including  Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School and Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts. Rep. Conyers has indicated that he intends to hold further hearings in the future.

H.R. 40 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which Rep. Conyers chairs, and has been referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.

The bill currently has three co-sponsors: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.).

What H.R. 40 would do

H.R. 40 would establish a commission to examine the history of slavery and racial discrimination in the U.S. to the present day. The commission would consider the role of federal and state governments, as well as private citizens, in enabling and supporting slavery and discrimination, and would assess the legacy of this history for freed slaves and for their descendants today.

The commission would then be charged with recommending ways to educate the public about this history and its legacy, and to recommend “appropriate remedies” in light of these findings. In weighing potential remedies, the commission would be specifically required to consider a formal apology from the U.S. government “on behalf of the people of the United States,” and the possibility of “any form of compensation” for the descendants of slaves.

Within the next few days, I will put up a separate post with my own views on the various issues raised by H.R. 40: acknowledging the nation’s history of slavery and discrimination; issuing apologies for that history; and offering reparations, whether in the form of financial compensation or otherwise.

Conyers and the Bush era

As the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers is also leading the effort to create an independent commission with subpoena power to inquire into Bush administration policies related to interrogation, detention, surveillance and other practices of the “war on terror.”

This effort has received renewed prominence in recent days, following the release of a selection of discredited Bush-era legal opinions on the powers of the presidency and the revelation that the CIA destroyed 92 interrogation videotapes despite pending court cases.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue of an independent commission tomorrow. Both Leahy and Conyers have been pressing for such an inquiry, while President Obama has indicated that he is not eager to support such efforts to look into the recent past.

57 Responses to “H.R.40, the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act””

  1. James says:

    Thats just plain silly. All members of Congress, the President, Court Justices etc are all paid the same regardless of race.

    That last part is true, bobbo.

    So if you assume that all black members of Congress and Supreme Court justices are in the exact same jobs they would have had absent racial discrimination, then yes, any time you meet one of them, you'll have found a black citizen being paid the same as he or she would have been paid absent our history of discrimination.

    You certainly have a fair point that there are plenty of individuals in this country who are black and who are paid what their white counterparts are paid. A few of them might even be in the same jobs if their ancestors had not faced generations of brutal discrimination.

    However, what makes you think that those members of Congress, for instance, wouldn't be titans of industry, earning far more than they do now, rather than having gone into politics (usually in majority-black districts)?

    You may feel that this is sophistry, but I do not. I believe it is the literal truth, and an important one.

    The broader point, of course, is that there would be more black members of Congress if there were no history of discrimination in this country, and that millions of black citizens would be earning more than they do now.

    Your argument here is that more people discriminated against should occupy offices. And thats true, but once there, they get paid the same.

    That's not true, bobbo. While a large part of the income gap is due to blacks not being hired and promoted into the same jobs, there are also frequently gaps in what white and black employees are paid for the same jobs.

    you are saying that Oprah would be paid more if she were white?

    I said that you were unlikely ever to meet someone black who was paid as much as if they were white.

    I put in the qualification specifically thinking of Oprah, and the fact that I couldn't possibly prove that she would have earned even more, with her entertainment and business talent, if she were white.

    However, the fact that you and I both thought of the same exception says a great deal about how rare those exceptions are.

    How can you be paid more than the highest paid person male or female in talk show history????

    By being Bill Gates? Or Warren Buffet? Or any of the many people who earn more than Oprah and whose business success wouldn't have been as great (or likely at all) if they weren't white?

    What about all those white people who inherited more money than Oprah will ever have?

    In the last decade, Oprah has been listed each year as among the 400 richest Americans. She is usually the only black person on the list.

    There should be about 48 blacks on that list, bobbo, if not for our nation's legacy of racial discrimination.

    That doesn't mean that we should give blacks money until there are 47 more on that list. It does mean, at a minimum, that we should lament the fact that the signs of racial discrimination are all around us, and that millions of Americans are affected by that legacy in their daily lives.

    I think you are evaluating too much thru a filter of race

    I think it's easy to talk about any one social issue, bobbo, and to leave the impression that it's the only important issue. We should always strive to avoid that trap.

    However, that doesn't mean that race doesn't play the role that I suggest it does.

    In a purely statistical sense, for instance, we can eliminate the effects of poverty and other factors, and see how much race alone influences the life outcomes of Americans.

    I’ll bet any discussion of whether or not the Black who were kidnapped and made it thru slavery to today are better off in the USA than any of their ancestors who remained free in Africa?

    How do you take that issue?

    I think this is an important historical truth, bobbo. Just as it's important to note that most white citizens of this country are better off here than the descendants of those who remained in their home countries.

    I wouldn't want any Americans to be judged by the conditions of modern Africa, on the basis of ancestry, just as I wouldn't want any Americans to be judged by the conditions prevailing in Ireland, Poland, Russia, Vietnam, or any other location where their particular ancestors may have once lived.

    We should all be judged as citizens of this country, and disparities between us resulting from ill treatment in this country should not be dismissed with the argument that any of us is probably better off than if our ancestors had never come here.

  2. bobbo says:

    James–Hah, hah, I thought you might get more upset by my post than you are indicating. I fear you are patting me on my pointed head and grouping me with Al. Just as I imagined you sitting with Al on the issue of slavery and the Civil War. Its how I demonize my enemies. Ooops. "people who disagree with me."

    I think life, human culture and history is COMPLEX. Philosophies and ideologies and congressional bills are simple. I approach complexity only with a feeling of "oceanic wonder." Its layered, conflicted, ying and yang, different in all aspect to different degrees and sometimes not at all.

    But you aren't for reparations. I keep forgetting that. Who can be against education, ourselves being the final frontier?

  3. James says:

    I fear you are patting me on my pointed head and grouping me with Al.

    Not at all, bobbo. We do see certain issues differently, you and I, and I do sometimes wonder why I can't make myself better understood with you. But I don't remotely consider you in the same category as Al, believe me.

  4. bobbo says:

    I think "some" black people could be a bit miffed at your assertion that "its unlikely ever to meet someone black who was paid as much as if they were white."

    Just to begin with, and yes I know its people with money who tend to say this (although I'm saying it?)—but, who says money is the measure of a successful personal life? Creative artists, novelists, scientists, sports figures, adrenaline junkies, explorers are stereotyped as having devout interests having nothing to do with filthy lucre. But beyond that, "if I were black" and grew up with loving parents who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do, and I did, and along the way I met a few black and white people who treated me in racist asshole ways, but along the same path I met other black and white people who lead me to believe that there are all kinds of people in this world and my mission was to find my own way, and I did, and I am now the proud night shift manager of the local xyz company and I am happily married, and enjoy roasting my own espresso beans and growing my own tomatoes and being a pastry chef for a few local restaurants, and YOU come around telling me I would be more successful or make more money if I were white===why I think I would smile and say "maybe so" but Inside, I'd be telling you to frick off.

    The statistical truths you can document may not affect as many people as you think, or not affect them in the same way it would you.

    Life is complex.

  5. James says:

    who says money is the measure of a successful personal life?

    Not me! I was speaking about the ways in which our history of racial discrimination impacts black members of our society today, and simply using income and wealth as handy and important examples. You're right, though, that it's usually people with some money who question the importance of money. Those who are in the lower income brackets in this country don't necessarily say that money is a measure of personal success–but they do tend to believe that money is important, and that fairness in terms of money is essential.

    Creative artists, novelists, scientists, sports figures, adrenaline junkies, explorers are stereotyped as having devout interests having nothing to do with filthy lucre.

    As that may be, bobbo, it's also important to note that historically, many potential American artists, novelists, scientists, sports figures, and explorers have never been able to realize their potential, because of their race. That was more true in, say, 1949 than in 2009, but that effect hasn't exactly disappeared, either.

    “if I were black” and grew up with loving parents who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do…and YOU come around telling me I would be more successful or make more money if I were white===why I think I would smile

    You raise an excellent point, bobbo. Certainly, we should be hesitant in jumping from averages to individual cases, which is why I phrased my observation in terms of likelihood. I never suggested that I would tell an individual that he or she would necessarily be enjoying more success with a different skin color.

    On the other hand, I don't personally know many black people who believe that they've gotten as fair a deal as most whites in terms of upbringing, education, hiring, promotion, and so on.

    The research also firmly backs this up. Your hypothetical, in which a black person receives every advantage in life, would be the exception, not the rule.

    You might also want to take a closer look at your hypothetical.

    Despite having loving, encouraging parents, does this hypothetical black person have parents who have the same education and careers as if they were white? Do they live in the same neighborhood, and go to the same schools, churches, and community institutions? The odds are overwhelmingly against it, and without that, it would take greater talent, luck, or hard work to do just as well–in which case, the person still isn't doing as well as they could have!

    I'm not trying to speak to what makes people happy and satisfied in their lives. I certainly do not live my life with the primary aim of making as much money as I can–quite the opposite, in fact.

    However, it's still a serious injustice if one group in our society is doing less well financially–and is much more often impoverished–because of this nation's sad history around race.

    The statistical truths you can document may not affect as many people as you think, or not affect them in the same way it would you.

    I strong believe that statistics are going to give us the best possible sense of how many people are affected.

    As for how people are affected by having less money, I'm right there with you. As I mentioned above, I'm not urging people to focus on earning money or to judge their worth by their financial success–nor do I live my own life that way.

  6. bobbo says:

    James, as always, well done. I also think statistics tell us a lot.

    Sometimes, life is simple. (smile!)

  7. bobbo says:

    Hi James

    Its been a year, but you/slavery are constantly on my mind. Watched "April, 1985" on tv again last night. It revealed to me another way to slice the baloney on the issue of causes/results of the Civil War, – – – – with a twist.

    I actually have come around to the view that "The North" did not fight the South to end Slavery. ((I'm not totally immune to your cogent opposition!)) But I do think "The South" did fight the North to "keep" slavery. Indeed, "Slavery" was "inextricably entwined" in the Civil War.

    What this raises is the whole issue of "who writes history" and the "interesting" way that bias creeps into the very way we think about issues. The winner writes the history and the winner infects how the entire history is viewed. It may be just "an accident" that the South started the armed conflict by its attack on Fort Sumptner (sp?) but to me the linguistic/rhetorical issue is set by that action.

    If the South was concerned that it's way of life, a way of life based on slavery, was being interfered with by anti-slavery legislation initiated by the North, and therefore fought to keep slavery, and the North fought to maintain the union then was the Civil War fought to end Slavery of Not?

    As stated, the argument proceeds by definition. Or is the definition, whatever it is, so ambiguous, so entwined, as to be the task of a fool? All very much goes to how one defines "cause and effect."

    Interesting stuff–and probably more present in our daily lives than we even recognize. Who is defining the cause and effect of global muslim based jihad against the West for instance.

    Yea, good stuff to cogitate over. Think I'll have another espresso.


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