Has John Conyers Finally Conceded U.S. Reparations?

John Conyers

John Conyers

In the time of extreme unemployment for African Americans and disproportionate representation among America’s health care uninsured, the vestiges of slavery, ending 144 years ago, and de jure segregation, just a mere 45 years ago, are being perpetually manifested throughout the nation. At a time when America has its first African American President, it is more than ironic that the absence of wealth, work, educational, and economic capacity that was historically withdrawn during these racial periods in America’s history, go unaddressed at a salience level lower than under previous presidents.

We understood going in that President Barack Obama was not for reparations. He was asked the question a gazillion times and he was consistent in his response. In fact, had he been for it, he probably (most assuredly) wouldn’t be President of the United States today. But just because the President isn’t for it – and he’s no different from any other President in that regard – doesn’t mean African Americans who are descendants of slaves are any less entitled to reparations, nor that the national debate shouldn’t be continued, nor should the legislative process to set up a commission to study the issue not be pursued.

There seem to be some indications, however, that the sparse political will in Congress that has historically placed reparations on the legislative agenda may be waning. Michigan House member John Conyers may be giving up on his 20-year fight to legislate the case for slave reparations in America.

Conyers, deeply embroiled in the fight to pass universal health care with a public option, is recently quoted as saying the reparations issue is “too controversial” to pursue at this time. Twenty years ago, a national discussion around reparations for the descendants of the enslaved began in the aftermath of the Reagan “revolution” that stripped the black community of wealth, work, and access (the deconstruction of Affirmative Action) that sent unemployment and poverty rates souring to similar levels we see today.

In January 1989, Conyers introduced House of Representative bill 40, “Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act,” for the purposes of study whether descendants of slaves during America’s formalized slavery period (1619-1865) are entitled to reparations as well as to look at the wealth and opportunities denied to African Americans during America’s legalized segregation era (1896-1964).

Conyers has introduced the bill every two years since and the bill usually gets stalled in a subcommittee, usually the Sub-committee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. Conyers introduced the bill again this year, in January, with 24 co-sponsors, to the House Judiciary Committee. and as Chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, there was hope that the bill would finally get out of committee and on to the House floor for some serious debate. However, reparations is often seen as the issue that will create the next civil war. America doesn’t want to pay reparation, because the number is incalculable, so why even discuss it.

The House of Representatives did issue an apology for slavery in 2008, but specifically stated that it would not consider reparations and the apology was not to suggest that America owed African Americans anything more than “an apology.” Well, we certainly know that’s not true, however, likelihood of descendants of slaves having a “day in court” stayed alive as long as HR 40 stayed alive.

Conyers, now 80 years old, in an interview with TheHill.com, a Washington D.C. based online newsletter and blog, suggested that his ongoing battles with Obama and the hyper-sensitive environment around passing health care reform are his foremost legislative priorities. The Hill.com cites Conyers has “abandoned hope” of moving his legislation on establishing a commission to study reparations for descendants of slaves. They quote him as saying reparations is “too controversial.” More controversial than health care reform or a war in Afghanistan? Yep. After all, we’re living in “Post-Racial” America.

Reparations is bland reminder of “Racial Americana” and in the age of Obama, we’re even now, right? Moreover, reparations is being traded out for health care – the ultimate horse trade. Conyers is not going to raise reparations with universal health care hanging in the balance. And given that Obama and Conyers are on the outs, factor into the political equation if the President would even sign Conyers’ bill anyway (if it got that far – we know it would be filibustered in the Senate). Still, it’s disheartening to see Conyers softening on his stance on studying reparations. It gives credence to the long-standing position that HR 40 was largely a symbolic engagement from the start. Reparations is no more controversial than slavery or segregation was.


Still, I find it odd that we would get soft on the reparations discussion during the Presidency of a black man. That would be the ultimate test for Obama, and of course, the ultimate test of integrity for America. But now that reality has set in, it is the ultimate test for the black community not to let the conversation die. Injustice needs to be rectified, whether it occurred 144 years ago or 144 days ago. Someone in Congress, or somewhere else, needs to pick up the reparations baton Conyers is preparing to drop.

Anthony Asadullah Samad

Republished with permission from the Black Commentator.

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