Congress is again discussing reparations for slavery. It's a complex and thorny issue
Updated 9:21 AM ET, Thu February 18, 2021
(CNN)Slavery reparations are back in the national spotlight.
A House Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing this week to discuss establishing a federal commission that would explore how the US government might compensate the descendants of enslaved Americans.
And though the White House press secretary declined to say whether President Joe Biden would sign legislation to develop reparations for slavery, she did say he supported a study on the matter.
Lawmakers have been advocating for a federal effort to study slavery reparations for more than 30 years now -- to no avail.
But since the widespread protests last year against racial injustice and the inequalities laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, the debate has taken on a new urgency.
"At the very root of the word reparation is the word repair," Dreisen Heath, researcher and advocate for Human Rights Watch who testified at Wednesday's hearing, told CNN. "And the necessary process of repair is the only way we get to actually achieving racial justice."
So, just how would reparations, focused specifically on slavery, work?
Why are we talking about reparations again?
The idea of giving Black people reparations for slavery dates back to right after the end of the Civil War (think 40 acres and a mule). But for decades, it was mostly an idea debated outside the mainstream of American political thought.
That changed when writer Ta-Nahisi Coates published his 2014 piece in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." In the years since, political leaders and members of the public have begun to take the issue more seriously.
The most recent movement on the topic came this week, when the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties heard testimony on a piece of legislation known as HR 40.
The bill proposes the creation of a federal commission to study reparations and recommend remedies for the harm caused by slavery and the discriminatory policies that followed abolition. That commission would also consider how the US would formally apologize for the institution of slavery.
HR 40 has been repeatedly introduced in Congress since 1989, though it has never passed.
"Now more than ever, the facts and circumstances facing our nation demonstrate the importance of HR 40 and the necessity of placing our nation on the path to reparative justice," Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, the lead sponsor of the bill, said at the hearing.
Lawmakers heard testimony from several people who spoke about why reparations were necessary for the nation to heal from slavery. Witnesses and experts pointed to how the concept had been applied internationally, as Germany did for the Holocaust, and even at home, after the internment of Japanese Americans.
Crucially, the passage of HR 40 wouldn't actually result in payouts to the descendants of enslaved Americans.
Rather, it would establish a group of appointed leaders to make recommendations on what compensation and other remedies to provide and how to go about doing so.
How do you put a cash value on hundreds of years of forced servitude?
This may be the most contested part.
Academics, lawyers and activists have given it a shot, though, and their estimates have ranged over the years from the billions to the quadrillions.
A study published last year in The Review of the Black Political Economy offered several different figures based on a variety of estimation methods.
Researchers looked at the Black-White wealth gap in 2018 and compared it to what slavery and discrimination were estimated to have cost the African American descendents of enslaved people.
A method that considers the value of "40 acres and a mule" puts the amount at about $12 trillion in 2018 dollars. Based on the value that enslavers placed on enslaved people, the number is about $13 trillion. Using lost wages, the cost is at $18.6 trillion. And another model that calculates the value of lost freedom puts the number at $35 trillion.
Those are conservative estimates, given that they are compounded by 3% interest, the authors note. At 6% interest, the numbers go as high as $16 quadrillion.
Also worth noting is that those totals only deal with the slavery that happened from the time of the country's founding until the end of the Civil War. They don't account for slavery during the colonial period or the decades of legalized segregation and discrimination against Black Americans that followed emancipation.
Where would the money come from?
When it comes to a national slavery reparations effort, scholars and advocates generally agree that the US government should pay -- given that it enshrined, supported and protected the institution of slavery.
William Darity, professor of public policy at Duke University and co-author of "From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century," told Quartz last year that the government could draw the money against the national debt and paid for it by selling treasury bonds -- similar to how the coronavirus stimulus checks operated.
"It can be done without creating new taxes," he told the publication. "We embrace the principles of modern monetary theory. The only barrier to increasing federal spending is the potential adverse impact on inflation. To minimize inflation, we advocate doing it over 10 years."
Similarly, state governments might pay for state-level slavery reparations efforts.
Advocates have also proposed having private businesses that financially benefited from slavery and rich families that owe a good portion of their wealth to slavery pay.
As you might imagine, suing large groups of people to pay for reparations might not go over well. Others have suggested lawmakers could pass legislation to force families to pay up. But that might not be constitutionally sound.
"I don't think you can legislate and have those families pay," Malik Edwards, a law professor at North Carolina Central University, told CNN in 2019. "If you're going to go after individuals you'd have to come up with a theory to do it through litigation. At least on the federal level Congress doesn't have the power to go after these folks. It just doesn't fall within its Commerce Clause powers."
The Commerce Clause refers to the section of the US Constitution which gives Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states.
But reparations mean more than a cash payout, right?
For many proponents, yes. Reparations could come in the form of special social programs or land resources. It could mean a mix of cash and programs targeted to help Black Americans.
Heath said that while financial payments are a key part of slavery reparations, the process should go beyond that.
"There's more forms to reparations than just financial compensation, although we absolutely have to calculate and evaluate that," she said. "But there also needs to be health care-specific reparations addressing psychological trauma and other mental harms, official truth-telling measures, official apologies for wrongdoing, institutional and legal reforms that challenge the current institutions that don't serve to protect Black people today."
Chuck Collins, an author and a program director at the Institute for Policy Studies, told CNN in 2019 that reparations could seek to address the discrimination Black people have experienced in home ownership or higher education.
"Direct benefits could include cash payments and subsidized home mortgages similar to those that built substantial White middle-class wealth after World War II, but targeted to those excluded or preyed upon by predatory lending," he said at the time. "It could include free tuition and financial support at universities and colleges for first generation college students."
Reparation funds could also be used to provide one-time endowments to start museums and historical exhibits on