US Congress debates reparations for slave descendants

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

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WASHINGTON, United States (AFP) — US lawmakers held a hearing Wednesday on whether to award reparations to the African-American descendants of slaves, a sensitive issue in a country where racial tensions are running high.

The proposal, known as HR40, would create a congressional committee to study slavery and the discrimination that descendants of the enslaved people were subject to under what was known as "Jim Crow" laws.

It has been submitted on several occasions since 1989 without having ever been put to a vote.

But this year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves on American soil, and the House Judiciary Committee held the hearing on what is known as "Juneteenth" -- the day when the last slaves in Texas were freed in 1865.

"HR40 is the response of the United States of America, long overdue," said Sheila Jackson Lee, who introduced the bill.

"We are not asking one American to give one payment," she said, although several university studies put the estimated debt at billions of dollars.

She said the African-American community, which makes up 13.4 percent of the population, had the right to some of the wealth that their ancestors helped create.

Steve Cohen, a Democrat sponsor of the bill, said the commission would "make recommendations as to appropriate ways to educate the American public about its findings and appropriate remedies in light of its findings."

Coleman Hughes, an African American writer, said black people didn't need "another apology."

"We need safer neighborhoods and better schools. We need a less punitive criminal justice system. We need affordable health care, and none of these things can be achieved through reparations for slavery," he said.

According to Federal Safety Net, a website monitoring poverty and welfare programs, 21.2 percent of African Americans lived in poverty in 2017, compared with 8.7 percent of the white population.

On Tuesday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who decides which bills come before the upper chamber, ruled out the idea of paying reparations for slavery.

"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," said the Republican senator from Kentucky, a former slaveholding state.

Democrat Senator Cory Booker, who is also African-American and vying for a 2020 presidential nomination, said on Sirius XM radio that McConnell's statements showed a "tremendous amount of ignorance."


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