What are we waiting for? If this is not the moment to finally come to terms with the United States’ 401-year legacy of government-sanctioned, anti-Black oppression, then, pray tell, when will that moment be?
Nearly every year since 1989, Congress has ignored a bill that would create a commission to study the effects of slavery on African Americans and explore possible remedies—including reparations. The current iteration of that bill, HR 40, was introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee last year and languished in the House Judiciary Committee ever since, awaiting action in a chamber controlled by Democrats. What are they waiting for?
There has never been a more promising period for action on this legislation than the one we are in now. Even before the recent wave of protests for Black lives swept the nation, the bill already had unprecedented support. As of today, 135 members of Congress have added their names as cosponsors—compared to the two cosponsors that the previous iteration of the bill had in 2014. Largely in response to the tenacity of African American New York Times reporter Astead Herndon, many Democratic presidential candidates explicitly expressed support for reparations when interviewed last year; The Washington Post reported that 15 of the candidates said the issue should be “studied.”
The current uprisings have made the imperative for this conversation even more compelling. The United States is in the midst of a racial justice reckoning unlike anything it has seen since John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, and other activists tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in March 1965. Those peaceful protesters encountered police mounted on horseback, who swung billy clubs into the skulls of marchers and shot tear gas at the assembled men, women, and children. The nationally televised broadcast of that attack—on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday—shocked the conscience of the country, and created the political will for the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
Fifty-five years later, we are seeing marches, protests, and rallies in more than 2,000 cities and towns in every state in the country (and on six of seven continents), demanding justice for Black lives. The shift in public opinion has been dizzying: As recently as 2017, polls found that only 28 percent of white Americans supported the Black Lives Matter movement, while 51 percent opposed it. Today, 42 percent of whites say they support the movement.
Institutions as mainstream as Target, Amazon, the National Football League, Lululemon, and many others have also expressed their support, and these aren’t your typical vague, feel-good statements about “diversity.” Even Walmart issued a statement saying it was working “to help replace the structures of systemic racism, and build in their place frameworks of equity and justice that solidify our commitment to the belief that, without question, Black Lives Matter.”
And yet, in response to this seismic shift, Congress has only moved incrementally on legislation that would finally address the centuries-long legacy of Black oppression. Much of the legislative energy to date has been channeled toward police reform, an area that desperately needs to see radical change. However, our political leaders should not be limited in their imagination or courage when it comes to pursuing even more far-reaching measures to remedy systemic racism. As Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in her June essay for the New York Times, “What Is Owed”: “If we are truly at the precipice of a transformative moment, the most tragic of outcomes would be that the demand be too timid and the resolution too small.”
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson did not stop at signing the Voting Rights Act. As Taylor Branch detailed in his 2006 book At Canaan’s Edge, Johnson quickly followed that step by bringing forward historic and transformative legislation to change the country’s immigration, health care, and education systems. That included the creation of Medicare, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and Title I federal funding for schools with a high percentage of low-income students, shifting the priorities of the nation and improving the lives of millions of people. The INA, in particular, finally ended America’s racist immigration quotas—and with them the legacy of restricting US citizenship to “free white persons.” The results reshaped the very composition of the country. Trump and his white nationalist puppet master, Stephen Miller, are still working overtime trying to reverse its effects.
Just as voting rights were only part of the picture in 1965, police reform is similarly only one aspect of a much larger and deeper problem. Policing in the United States has always been a form of social control of Black people, with roots tracing back to the slave patrols created in the early 1700s. The intersection of policing and the enslavement of African Americans is so embedded in American culture that it is still codified in the United States Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause, which compels the return of an runaway enslaved person to their “owner.”
Policing as social control of a racial group is not the only—or, frankly, the worst—legacy of slavery. Most of the structural problems in this country are caused by the gargantuan racial wealth gap that resulted from the expropriation of free labor from African Americans. That labor generated enormous economic profits for white people, who then continued to restrict Black access to wealth through decades of (explicit, then implicit) discrimination. As Harvard professor Sven Beckert wrote in his exhaustive 2014 book Empire of Cotton, “It was on the back of cotton, and thus on the backs of slaves, that the US economy ascended in the world.”
The consequence of this course of action has been to limit wealth and perpetuate high levels of poverty in the African American community. People living in poverty may not have money, but they still have needs. It is even possible that they could take extralegal actions to satisfy those needs, perhaps even going so far as to utilize a counterfeit $20 bill in a Minneapolis convenience store. That is what George Floyd was alleged—but not proven—to have done when those four police officers arrived on the scene, one of whom proceeded to kneel on his neck and kill him.
To limit the focus of the current moment to outlawing choke holds and passing police reform would be the equivalent of seeking to change the conduct of security guards at the bank—while ignoring the fact that the bank itself is filled with ill-gotten plunder.
The cause is just, and the country is clamoring for change. So what is Congress waiting for? There are 233 Democrats in the House of Representatives; right now, 98 of them have yet to cosponsor HR 40. In the Senate, Cory Booker has introduced a companion bill, but just 18 of the 47 Democrats and independents have signed on as cosponsors. What are they waiting for?
Not only that: What are we waiting for? People of conscience across this nation are looking for ways to act on their values and manifest their desire to rectify this country’s tortured racial history. One thing we can do is to lend our voices to HR 40: We can each pick an undecided member of Congress and call and e-mail them daily, until they either sign on as a cosponsor, or give an official statement explaining why they won’t. You can also urge Congress to act by adding your name to the petition that my organization, Democracy in Color, and many allies are circulating.
Many of us in the United States never thought we’d see a reckoning like the one happening now. When South Africa emerged from the shadow of apartheid, it modeled what a path forward could look like by establishing its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That commission spearheaded a national dialogue that confronted the truth of South Africa’s history, as a first step toward healing and justice.
In this country, HR 40 could be a vehicle to do the same. This is the moment for action.