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The moral argument for reparations is easy; now is the hard part

Author and Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates will testify today in support of a federal study on the issue of reparations for slavery.
Author and Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates will testify today in support of a federal study on the issue of reparations for slavery. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

The moral case for reparations is a clear one. African-Americans have long suffered from a legacy of slavery and later discriminatory Jim Crow laws and institutional racism in housing, education and health that has helped to create and perpetuate an underclass of people. Enslaved Africans literally built this country, but far too many of their ancestors are still left out of its prosperity. Just take the fact that the African-American poverty rate is 21.6 percent, while the rate for the entire country is 12.3 percent. And that’s a tiny part of the picture.

The good thing is that now the country appears more ready than it has been in years to try to come to grips with the sins of the past.

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An excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates' speech at Loyola University of Maryland on January 19, 2015. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun)

A House of Representatives committee today will hold the first congressional hearing in more than a decade on the topic of reparations for African Americans — specifically a proposal to set up a commission to study the issue. Some key lawmakers have already said they are open to the idea. The hearing is fittingly being held on Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in America.

It’s far from the first time the idea has been brought before lawmakers. Former Democratic Rep. Jon Conyers of Michigan relentlessly pushed legislation for a study of reparations for 28 years. Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has now taken the torch, and we hope that new momentum around the issue finally brings Mr. Conyers’ wish to life.

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Writer and Baltimore native, Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor, Danny Glover are set to testify before a House panel on the topic of reparations for slavery.

On his side is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has said that she supports a reparations study, and hopefully she can bring her colleagues on board as well. People like Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote a compelling piece in the Atlantic in 2014 on the need for reparations, have also helped to sway public opinion. The issue is likely to stay in the spotlight through the presidential election as several Democratic candidates have expressed some kind of support for helping right the wrongs of the past, including Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs Julián Castro, also from Texas. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, though squishy on the issue at first, said recently that as president he would sign legislation establishing a study of reparations.

A synopsis of today’s hearing describes it as a way “to examine, through open and constructive discourse, the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.” The latter part will surely cause the most angst. Admitting the problem is one thing. Solving it? That’s not so easy, as the presidential contenders, many who have not given specific plans for a remedy, have already proven.

The current political debate on slave reparations among democratic presidential candidates such as Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders is not a new or original conversation.

Take for instance, the idea of monetary payments to the descendants of slaves. Mr. Sanders and others have already dismissed this idea, perhaps the most controversial of the theoretical solutions. Yet monetary payments are an option that has worked in other cases. Germany has paid billions in reparations for the atrocities suffered by Jewish victims under Adolf Hitler’s rule. The program has been reworked and retooled over time to capture all those that suffered. Critics argue it would be hard to place a value on what is owed and figure out who would get paid. Also, who would pay for it? The government or families whose wealth was built from slave labor?

Other ideas that have been floated are an official apology from the United States, tax credits for low-income people and a financial program to help African American children pay for college. Congress could also create grants to help African Americans buy houses or put aside dollars for reinvestment in struggling neighborhoods where African Americans live as a means to address the large racial wealth gap.

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O'Rourke met with a group representing a community of slave descendants in South Carolina as he strives to make connections with the black voters.

Even with the growing support for reparations, it could be years before any ideas are adopted, if ever at all. The issue of reparations still remains a severely divisive issue with opinions often falling along racial lines. Nearly 68 percent of Americans don't think the descendants of slaves are owed any monetary compensation and resent the idea of taxpayer money paying for it, according to a 2016 poll by Marist. White Americans (81 percent) are overwhelmingly against the idea, while 58 percent of African Americans support reparations.

But a study would be a significant start to a serious, though maybe uncomfortable, discussion about the issue. All across the country institutions are confronting their racist pasts, from cities removing Confederate memorials from public grounds and stadiums, newspapers apologizing for coverage that endorsed racism, and institutions, including Georgetown University, apologizing for profiting off of slavery. It’s time the country as a whole atoned for racism as well.

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