By Joshua Nelson
A day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters he is against making reparations to the descendants of slaves, an award-winning author called out the top Republican during a House hearing on such compensation.
Some in the hearing Wednesday booed when another writer, also black, opposed reparations.
“For a century after the Civil War, black people were subject [to] a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell,” journalist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates testified in favor of reparations.
“It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no borders,” Coates said.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., another witness, called the discussion of reparations “a very important hearing.”
“It is historic, it is urgent,” Booker, one of three black U.S. senators, said.
The topic of the hearing by the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution and civil rights was HR 40, a bill that would mandate a study on how to make reparations designed to compensate African Americans for the enslavement of their ancestors.
Some in the hearing room booed when Coleman Hughes, a columnist for Quillette and philosophy student at Columbia University who says he is a Democrat, spoke against reparations.
Hughes, 23, testified that reparations would further divide the country and make him and other descendants of slaves “victims without their consent.”
The negative reaction in the hearing room prompted subcommittee Chairman Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., to tell the audience several times to “chill.”
“Racism is a bloody stain on this country’s history, and I consider our failure to pay reparations directly to freed slaves after the Civil War to be one of the greatest injustices ever perpetuated by the U.S. government,” Hughes testified.
But, he added:
Black people don’t need another apology. We need safer neighborhoods and better schools. We need a less punitive criminal justice system. We need affordable health care. And none of these things can be achieved through reparations for slavery.
Hughes said reparations would insult African Americans by putting a price on their ancestors’ suffering.
Coates, 43, previously an editor and national correspondent for The Atlantic and a former writer of the “Black Panther” comic book, opened his testimony by stating:
Yesterday, when I asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible.
Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. Well, we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.
Coates then cited the horrors of slavery and assets accumulated from it, and said: “It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.”
In a press conference Tuesday, McConnell said: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea.”
The hearing occurred on Juneteenth, the day the nation commemorates the end of slavery because a Union general announced it on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas.
Coates said HR 40 would stand as an apology for slavery.
The bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, would commission a study of reparations. Jackson Lee has 64 co-sponsors.
After noting that enslavement existed in America for over 200 years, Coates said the country “could have extended its hollow principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all regardless of color, but America had other principles in mind.”
He specified convict leasing, redlining, poll taxes, and “state-sponsored terrorism” as examples of white supremacy.
Coates noted that McConnell, 77, was alive during violence committed against blacks during the civil rights movement.
“And that is the thing about Sen. McConnell’s ‘something.’ It was 150 years ago, and it was right now.”
Coates went on to cite racial disparities in accounts of wealth, deaths, and prison populations in which he said “the descendants of the slaves were the largest share.” He said:
Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion; victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, and it is also a question of citizenship.
Booker, 50, made a case for reparations by citing racial disparities in prison, education, and health outcomes.
The New Jersey Democrat opened his testimony by recalling personal experiences growing up near impoverished urban environments such as Newark and witnessing violence and general harm done to African Americans. He attributed the current economic conditions of many blacks to slavery.
“I look at communities like mine and you could literally see how communities were designed to be segregated, designed based upon enforcing institutional racism and inequities,” Booker said, adding:
We know that racialized violence and terrorism has persisted from Reconstruction well into the 1950s …
I believe this is an urgent moment and this bill, which I am now leading on the Senate side, is the beginning of an important process—not just to examine and study this history that has not been addressed, the silence that persists, but also to find practical ideas to address the enduring injustices in our nation.
Also testifying were actor and activist Danny Glover; Katrina Browne, descendant of one of America’s largest slave-trading families; retired NFL player Burgess Owens; and the Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, among others.
Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.
Joshua Nelson, a journalist and filmmaker, is a graduate of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.