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The push for a bill that would drive research into reparations for Black Americans

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Twenty years ago, the late Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Michigan posed this question to a crowd of thousands.

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JOHN CONYERS: Reparations, not in the next century, not in 2185, not 10 years from now. But reparations when? Reparations when?

SUMMERS: He was the original sponsor of H.R.40, a bill that would create a task force to study reparations for Black Americans, a bill named after the storied and ultimately unfulfilled reconstruction era promise of 40 acres of land for formerly enslaved people. That rallying cry from Conyers came on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Some of that building's most recognizable architecture is one of many still visible legacies of slave labor. And in its halls, the debate has continued over what reparations should look like or whether they should exist at all.

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KATHY MASAOKA: There is no dispute that the wealth of this country was built on the stolen lands of Indigenous people and on the free slave labor of Black people.

HILARY SHELTON: Many of the residuals of the transatlantic slave trade, sadly, are still very much with us. African Americans are less likely to own homes than white Americans, one of the key bridges to our wealth in the United States.

BURGESS OWENS: Reparation is divisive, is demeaning to my parents' generation, that was the greatest generation in the history of our country.

HERSCHEL WALKER: If you give a man a fish, you feed him a day. You teach him to fish, you feed him a lifetime. Reparation is only feeding you for a day.

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: The focus on money misses the point. The goal of this historical commission and its investigation is to bring American society to the new reckoning. We're asking for people to understand the pain, the violence, the brutality, the chattel-ness of what we went through.

SUMMERS: After those moments of debate in 2021, H.R.40 garnered enough support to advance out of the House Judiciary Committee for the very first time. I covered that vote and the months of inaction that came after it. The bill never received a vote on the House floor that year. It still hasn't.

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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: That's New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman, who made reparations part of his pitch when he first ran for his seat. As some state and local efforts have slowly moved forward on reparations across the country, this Black History Month, we checked in with Bowman on where things stand now on the federal level.

Welcome back and thanks for speaking with us.

BOWMAN: Of course. Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: And, Congressman, several years ago, you and I spent a bunch of time together, both in your district and here in Washington, D.C. And one of the things that we talked extensively about was this House bill on the issue of reparations for Black Americans. Remind us briefly, if you could, what H.R.40 actually does.

BOWMAN: H.R.40 seeks to form a commission to study the impact of slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination and then determine the next steps, what sort of compensation might be attached to what the research finds.

SUMMERS: When you and I last spoke about this bill, there was a really strong sense of optimism because H.R.40, for the first time, had garnered enough support to make it out of committee. That happened in 2021, and at the time that we spoke, you pushed the importance of Democrats winning the midterm elections to have enough support to pass this bill into law. But Democrats lost the House, and there's little hope of a Republican-controlled Congress approving this bill. So what is the next best practical step in this process?

BOWMAN: The president should take executive action to form a commission to study the need for reparations for the African American community. We are in a historic moment, a heightened level of consciousness around structural racism and institutional racism overall. And people are having fresh conversations around what's happening in health care, what's happening in housing, policing, mass incarceration, the education system. We are dealing with that front and center in a way that we haven't over the course of my lifetime. We are also dealing with the resurrection of white nationalism and white supremacy that's threatening the very nature of our democracy. We have an extreme Supreme Court that is looking to probably strip affirmative action away if their previous judgments are any indication of what they may decide.

So we're in the moment right now where there's heightened levels of activism and consciousness, but also the pushback is very aggressive from people like Ron DeSantis and many others around the country. So we need historic leadership from President Biden right now. We need him to be vision-setting for what America can be, as opposed to making minor comments to simply paint around the edges when it comes to racial justice in our country. And I would just add that I was very disappointed and frustrated at the end of the previous Congress after we knew we'd lost the majority, that we didn't push harder to at least get H.R.40 to pass the House, even though it had 218 co-sponsors and even though it was voted out of committee.

SUMMERS: Thinking about the current makeup of the House of Representatives, Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan is now chair of the Judiciary Committee, the panel that first advanced H.R.40, and he's been critical of this legislation. Back in 2021, he said that H.R.40 would spend millions of dollars on a commission to, and I'm quoting here, "take money from people who were never involved in the evil of slavery and give it to people who were never subject to the evil of slavery." Can I just ask you, what goes through your mind when you hear arguments like that presented?

BOWMAN: Well, Jim Jordan is miseducated, like many in the Republican Party are miseducated on this issue. And unfortunately, many in the Democratic Party are also miseducated on this issue, and many independents are miseducated on this issue. The purpose and the process of forming a commission is not only to study the impact of de facto and de jure racism but to educate the American public on what their findings are and what we can do about the current harm that African Americans have to endure.

SUMMERS: If Republicans control the House of Representatives and absent executive action from President Biden, what more can be done to ensure that that commission exists? Does this bill simply just become symbolic?

BOWMAN: At this moment, the bill continues to be an important communication tool on the issue. We, as members of Congress and, actually, leaders and elected officials across the country, have to continue to raise their voices regarding the importance of this bill. We also need to tell the story of other groups throughout American history and world history that have received reparations because I think that helps to articulate the African American argument for reparations. It's about a movement across the country for justice and equality for all people. It's a process of healing and truth and reconciliation that America has to go through with itself, you know - and not just for African Americans, I might add. I would argue for Indigenous people, for women and for other marginalized groups as well. We got to tell the truth, and we got to heal collectively as a nation.

SUMMERS: Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Democrat from New York, thanks again for speaking with us.

BOWMAN: No problem. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.