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Fueled by racial justice protests in 2020, a bill to study slavery reparations for Black Americans appeared to gain some traction in Congress for the first time in decades. But President Joe Biden took no action to advance his campaign promise to study reparations.
Supporters had hoped Biden would come out in full support of the legislation when it reached a vote by a House panel in April, and/or when he spoke in June at the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Neither happened.
In April, the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee voted 25-17, along party lines, to move forward HR 40, legislation named for "40 acres and a mule," the phrase that has come to represent the unfulfilled promise of reparations given to enslaved people following emancipation. The legislation would have led to a study of reparations, but didn't commit to paying reparations. The vote took place against the backdrop of the trial of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer eventually convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis in 2020.
"America, this is a real and positive opportunity for healing and restoring, in particular, the African American community and the entire Nation," House sponsor U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, tweeted before the vote.
The legislation never received a full vote in the House, and it stalled in the Senate.
In 2021, both parties sought wins over COVID-19-related legislation or policies, the debt ceiling and infrastructure, said Niambi Carter, an associate professor of political science at Howard University. But when it came to reparations, that one was easy for Biden to cut, because it is a "deeply unpopular issue," Carter said.
While Biden knows that Black voters are one of his core constituencies, Carter said, the president also knows that there would have to be a substantial number of white voters who are also invested in pursuing reparations — and polls show that's not the case. (Multiple polls since 2019 have shown a majority of Americans oppose reparations.)
"Biden is wary of giving Republicans another rallying cry like they had this summer with critical race theory," Carter said, referencing a broad set of ideas about systemic bias and privilege that became a flashpoint in America's state legislatures and played a key role in some pivotal 2021 elections.
HR 40 calls for a commission that would recommend remedies and identify the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery and the "lingering negative effects of the institution of slavery."
Advocates say reparations would be a way to make amends for injustices and disparities endured by descendants of the millions of people who were enslaved in the centuries before emancipation.
The bill states that as a result of historical and continued discrimination, "African Americans continue to suffer debilitating economic, educational, and health hardships," pointing to the numbers of Black people who are incarcerated and racial disparities in unemployment and wealth.
Psaki replied: "Well, he supports a number of components of the bill, including the funding and the proposal for a study, which he feels would be the next important step forward and something that he feels would be absolutely correct in addressing this moment in history — these moments in history." When asked if Biden supports HR 40 as it stands, Psaki said, "I don't have more of an assessment of the legislation. But he, of course, supports a study of reparations and feels that would be the best next step."
The first federal call for reparations came during the waning months of the Civil War. Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered that formerly enslaved families should get plots of 40 acres along with mules. But after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman's order. The phrase "40 acres and a mule" would become a symbol of the nation's unfulfilled promise.
Over the next century, many activists called for reparations, including Callie House, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. There is historical precedent for reparations, including in Germany for victims of the Holocaust and in the U.S. for Japanese Americans who were interned in World War II.
In 1989, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced a bill to create a commission to study reparations, recommend remedies and consider whether compensation was warranted. After Conyers retired in 2017, Jackson Lee took over the effort.
Here's where Biden's promise stands at the end of 2021: The House panel's vote to move forward legislation to study reparations was a historic step, but the full House never took it up for a vote and it stalled in the Senate. We have not seen Biden take steps toward this promise. We will watch for any developments over the rest of his presidency, but for now we rate this promise Stalled.
Congress.gov, H.R.40 - Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, April 15, 2021
Washington Post, House panel approves bill to create commission on slavery reparations, April 14, 2021
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Tweet, April 14, 2021
The Grio, As reparations bill moves in House, should Biden issue US apology for slavery? April 14, 2021
New York Times, House Panel Advances Bill to Study Reparations in Historic Vote, April 14, 2021
NPR, House Lawmakers Advance Historic Bill To Form Reparations Commission, April 15, 2021
White House, Remarks by President Biden Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, June 2, 2021
Politico, Biden privately tells lawmakers not to expect much on reparations legislation, June 2, 2021
Gallup, As Redress for Slavery, Americans Oppose Cash Reparations, July 29, 2019
UMASS poll, April 2021
Telephone interview, Niambi Carter, Howard University associate professor of political science, Dec. 16, 2021