The moment has come for a government commission on slavery and its present-day impacts; the moment has come for profound change.
Last year on Juneteenth—an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States—Ta-Nehisi Coates gave powerful testimony to Congress. He argued that society owes a monumental debt to black Americans for the unpaid labor of slaves. Coates was participating in a Hearing about H.R. 40, a proposal officially known as “the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.” H.R. 40 is named for the “forty acres and a mule” that were promised (but never delivered) to newly emancipated African Americans.
Recounting the long history of violence and discriminatory policy that links the institution of slavery to the present day, Coates talked about redlining, racist G.I. bills, poll taxes, and state-sponsored terrorism. “It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement,” Coates said, “but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders.” He argued that contemporary cases of police brutality are connected to earlier forms of violence. In the current climate, anthropological insights about these issues can inform policy debates. We have an opportunity to leverage our symbolic capital in support of African American leaders with inspiring visions of reconciliation and social change.
Following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, public attention is now squarely focused on police violence targeting African Americans. With the outpouring of solidarity, with calls to #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia, many scholars started to look for concrete proposals to rectify longstanding problems. H.R. 40 is now a timely bill. The text of the legislation calls for a new government commission to study “racial and economic discrimination against African Americans” in the context of slavery. This “is a moderate piece of legislation,” writes Alondra Nelson, the current president of the Social Science Research Council. “Its passage would merely mandate the creation of a commission to study slavery and its present-day impacts, and make suggestions about possible remedies,” Nelson notes in The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (2016: 118).
H.R. 40 was first proposed in 1989 by Representative John Conyers, the cofounder of the Congressional Black Caucus. Conyers gained national renown when he became chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 2007 and began convening dramatic hearings that held Bush administration officials accountable for domestic spying programs and disastrous military adventures abroad. In 2015, Conyers became the Dean of the United States House of Representatives—the longest serving member in the House. But even in this position of relative power he was unable to muster much support for H.R. 40. With every new session of Congress, he reintroduced the bill in what seemed like an increasingly quixotic act. When I first started reading about the legislative proposal in 2016, it only had two co-sponsors: Congresswoman Joyce Birdsong Beatty, who had recently been elected to represent Columbus, Ohio, and Congressman Steve Cohen, from Memphis, Tennessee.
Shortly after President Trump was elected in 2016, I talked with Keenan Keller, the senior staff member on the House Judiciary Committee who had become the champion of H.R. 40 behind the scenes. Keller told me that his office was known for supporting “lost causes.” Even though Keller was embedded deep inside one of the most powerful institutions in the country, the Republicans were in control of the House. He knew that H.R. 40 showed little near-term chance of success. Even still, he was ready to play the long game.
In November 2017, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) lent support to H.R. 40 with an action alert about the bill. AAA members were coming to Washington for the Annual Meeting and many had prepared to meet with their elected Representatives to encourage them to sponsor H.R. 40. Special off-site events for AAA members took place on Capitol Hill that week. But the momentum behind H.R. 40 dissipated as an unforeseen scandal captured headlines. John Conyers resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. In 2019, Conyers died at his home in Detroit, Michigan.
Since Conyers passed away, momentum behind H.R. 40 has been building. One of his long-time friends in the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, reintroduced the bill in March 2019. The latest version of the legislation promises: “To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations.”
Hundreds of spectators—filling three overflow rooms—flocked to Capitol Hill on Juneteenth last year, to hear elected officials and witnesses debate the merits of H.R. 40. Alongside the eloquent testimony of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a white woman—Katrina Browne—talked about discovering that her ancestors had been “the largest slave trading family in United States history,” bringing more than 12,000 Africans to the United States in chains. At moments, the chairman of the hearing instructed members of the audience to simmer down. A Republican lawmaker was heckled when he argued that the psyche of Black people might be damaged by reparations. Instead, he suggested, African Americans should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Following this historic hearing, there has been a groundswell of support for H.R. 40 from the rank and file of Congress. To date, there are 127 sponsors—from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib in the progressive vanguard to more conservative members of the Democratic Party such as Gerald Connolly. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed support for H.R. 40 earlier this year. “Reparations is a challenging issue,” Pelosi said during an address at Howard University. “As you probably are aware, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has the legislation to study it, and I support that and look forward to an open mind and full participation of the public in that discussion.”
With her 2013 AAA presidential address, Leith Mullings encouraged her fellow anthropologists to solve “human problems through education, advocacy, and empowering subaltern groups.” As political energy moves from the streets, to reenergize conventional institutions of power, anthropologists have a historic opportunity to do translation work—to help channel widespread sentiment for change into the concrete legislative proposal of H.R. 40.
Eben Kirksey is associate professor of anthropology at the Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. His latest book, The Mutant Project, is an exploration of inequality, gene editing, and the future of race.
Cite as: Kirksey, Eben. 2020. “It’s Time to Study Reparations.” Anthropology News website, July 21, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1463