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H.R. 40, the federal bill to study reparations, appears stalled once again

Despite committee approval in February, a vote in the full House isn’t on the schedule

If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, right now the path of the federal reparations bill is bent into a question mark.

In February, the growing national movement to compensate Black people for slavery and government discrimination seemed poised to take a major step forward. Advocates announced that H.R. 40, a decades-old bill to study and make recommendations on reparations, had enough votes to pass the House of Representatives.

Today, H.R. 40 is being treated like that elderly relative you know you should visit, but never get around to. No House vote is scheduled and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office did not respond to a question about when a vote will be held. The bill would be unlikely to pass the Senate. Advocates are pushing President Joe Biden to set up the study by executive order, so recommendations could be adopted before the end of his term. But with reparations broadly unpopular among white voters and Biden’s approval ratings in the cellar, he has avoided making that commitment.

When demands for racial justice inspired millions to protest the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police and prompted institutions across the country to examine their history of discrimination, H.R. 40 finally advanced out of committee and local reparations proposals gained momentum across the country. Now, with Democrats facing a tough November election, the old political calculus has returned.

It’s enough to make one ask: When, if ever, will reparations be possible at the federal level?

“I don’t want to say this White House is feckless, but I’m not comfortable saying they are going to push an agenda forward that looks bold, progressive or interesting,” said Christina Greer, a professor at Fordham University and a scholar of Black politics.

“Democrats are multiple shades of blue,” Greer said. “We’d be incorrect to assume that the vast majority of Democrats are progressive or believe in this legislation … 2020 behavior looks nothing like 2022 behavior in Congress.”

President Joe Biden speaks during a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1, 2021.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

I asked reparations advocate Amanda Jackson, the economic justice campaign director for Color of Change, why H.R. 40 has stalled. “Folks are just being intentional with the conversation,” Jackson said, carefully. “I think it’s a mistake to speak of the bill as if it’s in the past or just sort of dormant.

“I think [House] leadership is reflecting,” Jackson continued. “I will say that it could be bolder, right? We of course want to see more from leadership around this issue. We’re pushing for a vote, but the absence of a vote does not mean the absence of movement. It just means the intention of movement.

“What we need is the Senate,” Jackson said.

But waiting for the Senate, where moderate Democrats such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are doubtful to support reparations, allows the House and Biden to sit on their hands. Everybody can point the finger at someone else for not taking action.

“It’s like a Russian doll situation,” said Greer. “The House gets to hide behind the Senate, Democratic senators get to hide behind Manchin and Sinema – ‘It’s DOA [dead on arrival], so we don’t have to take a position.’ Pelosi gets to hide behind, ‘It won’t pass the Senate.’ Biden gets to hide behind Pelosi.”

H.R. 40 was first introduced by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan in 1989. He named it after the 40 acres and a mule that the federal government promised Black residents in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida near the end of the Civil War. But the promise was broken soon after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and the land was returned to Confederates.

Conyers introduced H.R. 40 every legislative session, 20 times in all, while activists continued to document how past government-sponsored racism benefits white Americans while damaging the wealth and health of Black citizens. The topic vaulted into the national discourse when Ta-Nehisi Coates published his essay The Case for Reparations for The Atlantic in 2014, and various reparations initiatives are now underway in the city of Evanston, Illinois, the state of California and at least 10 other locales.

Conyers passed the baton in 2017 after he left office to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who is the main sponsor of the current bill. It would establish a 13-member commission, with seven seats appointed by the president, House speaker and Senate president pro tem and six seats given to civil rights organizations. The measure has support from a long list of organizations, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Episcopal Church to Harvard University.

Robin Rue Simmons, architect of Evanston’s program and founder of a nonprofit, FirstRepair, that works to advance local reparations initiatives across the country, said advocates are focused on getting an executive order from Biden before the November election.

“What is needed for that to happen is more ally support, and relating every urgent social and racial justice issue to case for reparations,” Rue Simmons said. “We need more and more allies signing on from interfaith organizations, industries and institutions. That is in line with how most federal policies and important legislation have historically been passed. There’s a local groundswell, state laws and institutional change.”

Despite the current stalemate on Capitol Hill, the concept of reparations has come remarkably far since Barack Obama considered it a “nonstarter” during his presidency due to white resistance. Biden and most other 2020 presidential candidates said they supported the idea of studying reparations, if not actually implementing it. “We’re encouraged,” Jackson said. “The roots here are deep because the harm is deep. We’re talking generationally. And so we’re encouraged by the conversations. We’re encouraged by the momentum.”

Obama popularized the “arc of the moral universe” quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., who paraphrased an 1853 sermon by abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe,” Parker said. “The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

America has no experience calculating the cost of government racism. Right now, it cannot complete the figure. But conscience could bring justice, however distant, into view.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.