Guest Commentary: H.R. 40 Is Not a Symbolic Act, It’s a Path to Restorative Justice.

Sheila Jackson Lee Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The conversation surrounding reparations is underway and the U.S. government must take a leading role.

By Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

For nearly three decades, my former colleague Rep. John Conyers of Michigan would introduce H.R. 40, legislation seeking to establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals. Though many thought it a lost cause, he believed that a day would come when our nation would need to account for the brutal mistreatment of African Americans during chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the enduring structural racism endemic to our society. With the rise and normalization of white supremacist expression during the Trump administration, the discussion of H.R. 40 and the concept of restorative justice have gained more urgency, garnering the attention of mainstream commentators and illustrating the need for a national reckoning.

Slavery is America’s original sin, and this country has yet to atone for the atrocities visited upon generations of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Moreover, the mythology built around the Civil War has obscured our discussions of the impact of chattel slavery and made it difficult to have a national dialogue on how to fully account for its place in American history and public policy. H.R. 40 is intended to create the framework for a national discussion on the enduring impact of slavery and its complex legacy to begin that necessary process of atonement.

The designation of this legislation as H.R. 40 is intended to memorialize the promise made by Gen. William T. Sherman, in his 1865 Special Field Order No. 15, to redistribute 400,000 acres of formerly Confederate-owned coastal land in South Carolina and Florida, subdivided into 40-acre plots. In addition to the more well-known land redistribution, the order also established autonomous governance for the region and provided for protection by military authorities of the settlements. Though Southern sympathizer and former slaveholder President Andrew Johnson would later overturn the order, this plan represented the first systematic form of freedmen reparations.

With the withdrawal of Union troops from the South in 1877, the promise of Reconstruction proved short-lived, and over the next century and a half, the Black Codes would morph into Jim Crow segregation and federal redlining and the war on drugs and mass incarceration and racism in policing and underfunded schools — injuries not confined solely to the South. These historical injustices connect through a web of government policies that have ensured that the majority of African Americans have had to, in the words of President Obama, “work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by.” Black America’s unemployment rate is more than twice that of white America’s. Black families have just one-sixteenth of the wealth of white families. Nearly one million Black people — mostly young men — are incarcerated across the country. Though remote in time from the period of enslavement, these racial disparities in access to education, health care, housing, insurance, employment, and other social goods are directly attributable to the damaging legacy of slavery and racial discrimination.

Since its introduction, H.R. 40 has spurred some governmental acknowledgment of the crime of slavery, but most often the response has taken the form of an apology. Even the well-intentioned commitments to examine the historical and modern-day implications of slavery by the Clinton administration, however, fell short of the mark and failed to inspire substantive public discourse. For many, it was not until The Atlantic published Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” that the mainstream public began to reckon with, or even consider, the concept of reparations.

Though the federal government has been slow to engage on the issue of reparations, individuals, corporations, and other public institutions have engaged the discussion out of both necessity and conscience. In 1994, a group of California plaintiffs brought suit against the federal government, and by 2002, nine lawsuits were filed around the country by the Restitution Study Group. Though litigation has yielded only mixed success in court, a serious foundation was laid for alternative forms of restitution. For example, in 2005, J.P. Morgan & Company tried to make amends for its role in the slave trade with an apology and a $5 million, five-year scholarship fund for Black undergraduates in Louisiana. In 2008, the Episcopal Church apologized for perpetuating American slavery through its interpretation of the Bible and certain dioceses have implemented restitution programs.

In 2003, Brown University created the Committee on Slavery and Justice to assess the university’s role in slavery and determine a response. Similarly, in 2016, Georgetown University apologized for its historical links to slavery and said it would give an admissions edge to descendants of slaves whose sale in the 19th century helped pay off the school’s debts. These are only a few examples of how private institutions have begun reckoning with their past records. I expect that a growing number of institutions will be forced to examine their histories of discrimination, if for no other reason than increasing public scrutiny will force their history to light.

Since my reintroduction of H.R. 40 at the beginning of this Congress, both the legislation and concept of reparations have become the focus of national debate. For many, it is apparent that the success of the Obama administration has unleashed a backlash of racism and intolerance that is an echo of America’s dark past that has yet to be exorcised from the national consciousness. Commentators have turned to H.R. 40 as a response to formally begin the process of analyzing, confronting, and atoning for these dark chapters of American history.

Even conservative voices, like that of New York Times columnist David Brooks, are starting to give the reparations cause the hearing it deserves, observing that: “Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.” Similarly, a majority of the Democratic presidential contenders have turned to H.R 40 as a tool for reconciliation, with 17 cosponsoring or claiming they would sign the bill into law if elected.

Though critics have argued that the idea of reparations is unworkable politically or financially, their focus on money misses the point of the H.R. 40 commission’s mandate. The goal of these historical investigations is to bring American society to a new reckoning with how our past affects the current conditions of African Americans and to make America a better place by helping the truly disadvantaged. Consequently, the reparations movement does not focus on payments to individuals, but to remedies that can be created in as many forms necessary to equitably address the many kinds of injuries sustained from chattel slavery and its continuing vestiges. To merely focus on finance is an empty gesture and betrays a lack of understanding of the depth of the unaddressed moral issues that continue to haunt this nation.

While it might be convenient to assume that we can address the current divisive racial and political climate in our nation through race-neutral means, experience shows that we have not escaped our history. Though the civil rights movement challenged many of the most racist practices and structures that subjugated the African-American community, it was not followed by a commitment to truth and reconciliation. For that reason, the legacy of racial inequality has persisted and left the nation vulnerable to a range of problems that continue to yield division, racial disparities, and injustice.

By passing H.R. 40, Congress can start a movement toward the national reckoning we need to bridge racial divides. Reparations are ultimately about respect and reconciliation — and the hope that one day, all Americans can walk together toward a more just future.

Sheila Jackson Lee is a member of the Congress representing Texas’ 18th congressional district.  Originally published by the ACLU.

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12 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: H.R. 40 Is Not a Symbolic Act, It’s a Path to Restorative Justice.”

  1. Ron Oertel

    Here’s another “reparation” being proposed, for a war that’s been over for 150 years (with no survivors on either side):

    Those groups are able to determine their own destiny, and in many cases, that destiny has involved lucrative gambling palaces.

    The stakes are high. A federally recognized tribe has sovereignty and does not pay taxes. It is also exempt from following state or county legal ordinances. Yet it is entitled to full service from local law enforcement authorities and fire departments, hospitals, and road and flood control systems.

    A century-old fight for tribal recognition simmers – Los Angeles Times (

    Always at the sacrifice at remaining public lands (instead of say, Manhattan).

    Maybe it’s time to consider yourselves citizens of the United States? I would assume that everyone has found a home at some point within the last 150 years. Not to mention the intermingling with other populations that have occurred, since that time.

    50 years ago, the federal government owned something like 99% of Alaska.  Today, it’s about half that amount, as I recall.  (Witness the rise of the Alaska native corporations, for one thing.)

    Next up – reparations for families impacted by Japanese American internment, Chinese who were prevented from owning land, etc.?



    1. Don Shor

      Always at the sacrifice at remaining public lands (instead of say, Manhattan).

      Maybe it’s time to consider yourselves citizens of the United States? I would assume that everyone has found a home at some point within the last 150 years.

      This is an amazingly blithe and facile disregard for the impact of treatment of indigenous people in North America and the ongoing health and economic disadvantages from the long history of broken treaties and the wholesale involuntary movements of tribes.

      Next up – reparations for families impacted by Japanese American internment

      That’s been done. It took a long time.

    2. Ron Oertel

      There is one problem with this tale of Uncle Sam-finally-does-vets-a-solid, however: It is not accurate. This wrong already has been righted. In 1971, to settle Native land claims, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which gave newly formed Native “corporations” that represented Native peoples nearly $1 billion and the ability to select 44 million acres of the state.

      And yet, now Republicans are back for another bite at the apple. 

      The big Alaskan land giveaway tucked into a sweeping conservation bill – The Washington Post


  2. Ron Oertel

    This is an amazingly blithe and facile disregard for the impact of treatment of indigenous people in North America and the ongoing health and economic disadvantages from the long history of broken treaties and the wholesale involuntary movements of tribes.

    They’ve been dead for 100 years, Don. 

    At some point, there’s got to be an acknowledgement of that, or they’ll keep whittling-away at public lands (and building casinos, for example, that are “above the law” that all else have to follow – while government is still forced to subsidize them with services, as noted).

    Or, conducting the same type of commercial / harmful operations that “white” people do, on lands that were previously publicly-owned – as in Alaska. (The amount of those public lands has been drastically reduced, over the years.)

    Maybe it’s time to be a citizen like everyone else.

    It’s really the same issue as “reparations”, for other groups of dead people.

    1. Don Shor

      They’ve been dead for 100 years, Don.

      The problems continue among the populations of Native Americans, Ron. Reparations are one way of addressing the present-day consequences of our past actions.

      Maybe it’s time to be a citizen like everyone else.

      Native Americans were granted citizenship, mostly, in 1924 but didn’t get voting rights in every state until 1962.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The problems continue for (some) Native Americans, due to the reservation system itself.  And now, some want to claim that they were left out of the “benefit” of that system, it seems. 

        And again, it seems to me that many people have mixed with other races, by this point.

        At what point does an identity/citizenship (that is separate from the United States) end?

        At what point do we stop trying to reimburse dead people (or their claimed descendants), for actions taken by other dead people?

        Seems to me that there’s been vast injustices to people all over the world, some of which continue today. I suspect that almost everyone’s distant ancestors experienced this in some way or another, at some place in the world.  Actually, that’s probably a reason that a lot of them migrated to the United States in the first place.

        But I, for one, object to giving-away public lands to “make up” for it, regardless. Nor do I support a separate system which is above the law (and which still requires government support, to boot).

        (My last allowed comment.)

    2. Bill Marshall

      They’ve been dead for 100 years, Don. 

      Do you not realize the effect on children, their effect on their children, etc., etc.

      In scripture, some “sins” go to the 3rd, 4th even 7th generation as to “guilt”…

      The article is unclear, but says it’s (reparations) not about money, land… it is not clear what form it would take… but if it includes society acknowledging past harm, with a ‘contrition’, and resolving to undue, unfair, impediments that society has, and/or is, inflicting on any group (descendents of Appalaichian miners, mainly white, actually have similar issues), need to be removed… “reparation” is not well defined in this context, and it is not clear, at least to me, that “affirmative action” (sometimes carried out as ‘reverse discrimination’) is an answer… might be part of it, but has its own risks, by favoring, possibly, a middle-class POC over a ‘white’ who has been for generations, been in borderline poverty…

      Unfortunately, there can be no ‘statute of limitations’ on wrongs long committed… and to a certain extent, still continuing…

      ‘Restorative justice’ (or some would say, ‘penance’), reparations, cannot be an “event”, but a process… a process earnestly taken to “take down the wall” (focusing on Berlin, but might be a good metaphor elsewhere) and, moving forward, not perpetuate ‘wrongs’ (some may say ‘sins’)… like Keith O., at first I thought I’d not read the article, but since have, and reflected on it…

      But I will not accept that my ancestors, myself, spouse or our children are ‘particularly responsible’ to make reparations just because we are white.  Pretty much all races/ethnic goups have been, or are, guilty of much of the same… for ethnic, economic, religious, other reasons… even recently, Black African groups have kidnapped children, others, to be treated as ‘slaves’… Japan invaded China, and forced folk into virtual slavery… China did the same to various ethnic groups and dissidents… India did, and according to many who opposed raising a statue to Ghandi, still do… Korea did (and perhaps still does)… No “society” is ‘innocent’… no society is particularly ‘guilty’… the way we ‘acquit’ ourselves is to remove barriers



  3. Ron Oertel

    I’ll go ahead and “waste” another comment:

    I would think that there could also be “reparations” for John Sutter losing his land (to other “white” people), Mexico “losing” California (though some might say that it was never totally “lost” to Mexico), Native Americans losing California to Spain/Mexico in the first place, etc.

    Then, we can explore what happened to the original land-holders in South/Central America, and whether or not Mexico (for example) is providing reparations there.

    Or maybe, we can all just move forward in a united (states) manner, within the current systems?

  4. Tia Will

    Maybe it’s time to be a citizen like everyone else.”

    I think this may be easy to write as an individual who has not had to give up anything in order to live as your ancestors did and as you would choose. For many Native Americans, the issue is not one of getting money from casinos or other enterprises they have been allowed, but the inability to continue a prized lifestyle.

    I will use the Tohono O’odham reservation as my example since I lived and worked there for two years. There were two distinct populations.

    1. Those who were trying their best to adapt to the predominant lifestyle of Tucson with its pick-ups, fast food, alcohol, passive sports observation, theaters, and the like. They were typically obese, had alcohol problems, a high incidence of diabetes, and a lower life expectancy.

    2. The group that as preserving their traditional lifestyle of walking as their means of transportation, planting beans and corn as staples of a largely vegetarian lifestyle. They were lean, fit, largely free from diabetes and alcoholism. But their lifestyle required land, free-ranging between Mexico and the US.

    Guess which of these lifestyles US policy supported? But why can’t they just live as we do? Right?

  5. Alan Miller

    Next up – reparations for families impacted by Japanese American internment . . .

    RO, this is one of those “Google before sticking foot in mouth” moments.  This was done, successfully, and the reparations were, though it took decades, able to be distributed to many living survivors.  One of the lead attorneys who fought this cause lives in Woodland, interred himself.  I saw him speak at the Capay Valley Black History day last February, just weeks before lockdown.  It was a fascinating story.

    That fight was relatively simple compared to reparations for slavery, as it was immediately clear who was locked up, and many of the direct victims were still alive or only one generation removed.

    I don’t usually say this, but your comments on American Natives I found somewhere between naive and offensive.  I traveled to Arizona a couple of times to stay with some indigenous peoples who were on land with no electricity and no plumbing, squatting on land their ancestors came from that had been taken through a legal maneuver to allow strip-pit coal mining (this story is found on YouTube on the somewhat outdated “Broken Rainbow” – the update is the mines are dying and the native people have largely abandoned the land and the fight – leaving a vast wasteland in some areas).  This was only a couple of decades ago, and that and other examples of the continuing abuse and actively taking advantage of our indigenous population is still an issue, it’s not just 150 years ago.  And what this country did, repeatedly to the its indigenous people may have been inevitable, but it doesn’t make it any less egregious nor less genocidal.

  6. Alan Miller

    I agree about the reservation system and even the concept of sovereignty so cherished is at times used against the very people it is meant to protect.  Maybe I misread your meaning.  It seemed you were saying ‘just become citizens already’.  I don’t know, Europeans rather took over all their land and lied and broke treaties and rounded them up to specific pieces of land, indoctrinated their children, paid pennies on the dollar for stolen resources . . . list goes on.  Seemed you were saying, ‘just time to be one of us’.  Which I think is up to native peoples.  If I took that wrong, apologies.

    OK, appears I commented to a ghost comment by RO. Can I give him one of my comments to repost that? I don’t know if trading is allowed under the new rules, or is it philanthropic giving? I think he should be able to respond to a strong statement aimed at him, which mine certainly was. But I don’t make the rules #sigh#

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