The debate over reparations for descendants of slaves catapulted from the campaign trail to Congress on Wednesday with an impassioned plea from actor Danny Glover and others for lawmakers to address compensation for America’s blighted heritage of racism and Jim Crow laws.
Glover, who told a House Judiciary panel that his great-grandfather was enslaved, called a national reparations policy “a moral, democratic and economic imperative.”
It was Congress’ first hearing in a decade on the topic, and it comes amid a growing discussion in the Democratic Party on reparations and sets up a potential standoff with Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the idea.
“This hearing is yet another important step in the long and historic struggle of African Americans to secure reparations for the damage that has been inflicted by slavery and Jim Crow,” Glover told the panel.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who drew new attention to the issue with his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations,” told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: “It’s impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.”
Presidential contender Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) testified that the U.S had “yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country’s founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality.”
But another writer, Coleman Hughes, who at times testified over boos from the audience, said black people didn’t need “another apology,” but safer neighborhoods, better schools, a less punitive criminal justice system and better healthcare.
“None of these things can be achieved through reparations for slavery,” said Hughes, who says he is the descendant of blacks enslaved at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
The legislation, which would set up a bipartisan commission to study the issue, spotlights a national conversation over the legacy of slavery. Several of the party’s presidential candidates have endorsed looking at the idea, though they have stopped short of endorsing direct payouts for African Americans.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Wednesday called reparations a “serious issue” and said he expected the resolution would see a vote in the House.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who became the sponsor of a measure to study reparations after the retirement of Democratic Rep. John Conyers, said to the packed hearing room, “I just simply ask: Why not, and why not now?”
But McConnell opposes reparations, telling reporters Tuesday he doesn’t want reparations for “something that happened 150 years ago.”
“We’ve tried to deal with the original sin of slavery by passing civil rights legislation,” McConnell said, and electing an African American president, Barack Obama.
“It would be hard to figure out who to compensate” for slavery, the Kentucky Republican said, and added: “No one currently alive was responsible for that.”
Although reparations have been moving toward the mainstream of the Democratic Party, the idea remains far from widely accepted, both among Democrats and the public at large.
In a Point Taken-Marist poll conducted in 2016, 68% of Americans said the country should not pay cash reparations to African American descendants of slaves to make up for the harm caused by slavery and racial discrimination. About 8 in 10 white Americans said they were opposed to reparations, while about 6 in 10 black Americans said they were in favor.
Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the top Republican on the panel, said he respected the beliefs of those who supported reparations. He called America’s history with slavery “regrettable and shameful.”
But he said paying monetary reparations for the “sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago” would be unfair, difficult to carry out in practice and, in his view, likely unconstitutional.
Top Democrats pushed back Wednesday on McConnell’s comments, with one calling his remarks “sad.”
“We cannot look to him for any sort of moral authority or guidance on how we should be addressing the issues of slavery and the impact today on income inequality, curtailing opportunity and civil rights and voting rights,” she said.
Republicans invited Hughes and also Burgess Owens, a former Oakland Raiders football player and Super Bowl champion, who recently wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial eschewing reparations.
The debate over reparations for black Americans began not long after the end of the Civil War.
A resolution to study reparations was first proposed in 1989 by Conyers of Michigan, who put it forward year after year.
Visitors lined up Wednesday to attend the hearing. Abibat Rahman-Davies, 20, from Southern California, said she was waiting more than two hours.
“I think that this has been a part of history that we’ve ignored for too long,” she said, “so it’s very important for me to be here and to see this part recognized.”
The hearing Wednesday coincided with Juneteenth, a cultural holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in the United States.