Ta-Nehisi Coates Argues for Reparations at Historic Congressional Hearing

On Wednesday, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary held a historic hearing on reparations for slavery — the first of its kind in over a decade. Wednesday’s hearing coincided with Juneteenth, a day that commemorates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had abolished slavery. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade. Lawmakers are considering a bill titled the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” It was introduced by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, after former Congressmember John Conyers had championed the bill for decades without success. The bill carries the designation H.R. 40, a reference to “40 acres and a mule,” one of the nation’s first broken promises to newly freed slaves. Ahead of the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch 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.” Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates testified at the historic congressional hearing on reparations and took direct aim at McConnell.

TRANSCRIPT

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Wednesday, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary held a historic hearing on reparations for slavery — the first of its kind in over a decade. Wednesday’s hearing coincided with Juneteenth, a day that commemorates June 19th, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had abolished slavery. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade.

Lawmakers are considering a bill titled the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” The bill was introduced by Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston this year, after former Congressmember John Conyers had champion the bill for decades without success. The bill carries the designation H.R. 40, a reference to “40 acres and a mule,” one of the nation’s first broken promises to newly freed slaves.

Ahead of the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked by reporter Eva McKend of Spectrum News whether the government should issue a public apology for slavery.

MAJORITY LEADER MITCH McCONNELL: 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. We’ve, you know, tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that. And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate. We’ve had waves of immigrants, as well, who have come to the country and experienced dramatic discrimination of one kind or another. So, no, I don’t think reparations are a good idea.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Well, on Wednesday, the award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates testified at the historic congressional hearing on reparations and took direct aim at McConnell.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yesterday, when 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.

This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the Founders, or the Greatest Generation, on the basis of a lack of membership in either group. We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance. And the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance.

It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery. As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement, quote, “shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics” of America, so that by 1836 more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America — $3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined.

The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.

It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement. But the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders, and the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs — coup d’états and convict leasing. vagrancy laws and debt peonage, redlining and racist G.I. bills, poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism.

We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. 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.

What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something.” It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.

The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share.

The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that a nation is both its credits and its debits, that if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings, that if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street, that if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow, because the question really is not whether we will be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates, a lead-off witness before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. His seminal 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” helped spur new calls to make amends for slavery. When we come back, he joins us for the rest of the hour.