Repair Can’t Wait: The Case for Reparations

In February, the American Humanist Association (AHA) joined nearly 400 national, international, state, and local organizations in a letter urging leadership in the House of Representatives to bring HR 40 to a full vote on the House floor.

HR 40, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, would establish an expert reparations commission tasked with studying the legacy of slavery and how failure to address its historical and ongoing harms have entrenched racial disparities in our country. The commission would also report to Congress its findings and recommendations, which may include revisions to federal laws, the scope of restitution, and ways to counteract slavery’s ongoing ill-effects.

We are at a historic moment. This bill has been introduced in every Congress since 1989 and, thirty-two years later, on April 14 of last year, the House Judiciary Committee voted to move HR 40 to the House Floor for full consideration. Now, we call on leadership to take the next step as they have promised: bring it to a vote.

Can you take two minutes and ask your member of Congress to press Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Hoyer to bring the bill to a vote?

There is already precedent for the United States government providing reparations. In 1988, Ronald Reagan signed into law legislation that outlined a formal apology on behalf of the U.S. government for the forced internment of Japanese Americans and provided $20,000 to each former internee, twenty years after the last internment camp was shut down.

The United States has already provided reparations for slavery, but not in the ways you might think. Slaveowners were paid up to $300 for their loss of each enslaved person freed by Lincoln’s signing of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act in 1862. While that law was fully enacted, the promise of reparations to enslaved Americans was not. The order commonly known as “40 acres and a mule,” (which gives HR 40 its number) was proposed by southern Black ministers and announced by General Sherman outlined that not only would formerly enslaved Black Americans be given land, the land would be governed by its Black owners, and their rights to the land and self-government would be protected by the U.S. military until the local communities had the means to protect it themselves. This order was overturned by President Andrew Johnson later that same year and the land was returned to its original owners. Our country’s failure to address the harm of slavery 140 years ago has allowed its effects to entrench themselves in our systems.

The legacy of slavery has led to inequities centuries in the making: inequities in wealth, healthcare, housing, employment, education, policing, and more. And each day that passes without national reparations, those systems become more entrenched, the harm compounds, and our country’s promise remains shamefully unfulfilled.

Doing reparations right on a national scale isn’t easy, and HR 40 is the next necessary step to gather the evidence required for creating an informed proposal. That’s why the AHA is proud to be a longtime supporter of HR 40.

Please join us by reaching out to your Representative now to let them know that equity and justice can’t be achieved without repair, and repair can’t occur if our country doesn’t fully reckon with the extent of the harm.