On Wednesday, February 17, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties was called together to discuss HR 40, a bill that would order the creation of a commission to study whether or not Americans should be forced to pay reparations for slavery.
Identity Politics Ascendant
The bill, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act, was proposed by Texas Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee. It would order a panel of experts to come together and find out how best to compensate Black Americans for slavery.
Lee insists that the bill is an essential part of what she calls “reparative justice.”
It’s not clear how the bill would select the “experts” who would make up the committee, especially given that economists and economic historians who have studied the effects of slavery in the U.S. have disagreed enormously about how productive slavery actually was in the antebellum South and therefore how much money Black Americans would be entitled to from a reparations bill.
For instance, according to one estimate—arrived at by economist William Darity and historian Kirsten Mullen, and popularized by the 1619 Project, an effort by journalists to rewrite American history as fundamentally mired in slavery—the reparations bill could run up to $13 trillion, which would dole out between $300,000 and $350,000 to each Black American.
Other economists like Philip Magness have sharply criticized the calculations that produced these figures. Magness has said that Darity and his ilk have vastly overstated the contribution of slavery to total U.S. economic output through a great deal of double counting.
Still, the figure should be put into perspective. The total U.S. federal budget—already enormous as it is—is only $5.8 trillion.
It, therefore, matters a great deal how the “experts” on this proposed panel would make their calculations. It makes a huge difference whether those calculations are reliable or politically motivated.
And this assumes that it is right to force people who were not even alive when a crime occurred to pay the cost of that crime.
Biden Is Open to It
Despite all of this, Biden appears to at least be open to the idea. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said that Biden supports the idea of creating a commission to investigate the issue of reparations.