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House Holds Hearing On Reparations


House Democrats are hosting a panel today on reparations for African Americans who are descended from slaves. There's newly proposed legislation that would study the consequences of slavery and help make recommendations for reparations. Here's Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, who sponsored that bill. She talked to Michel Martin on All Things Considered this weekend.


SHEILA JACKSON LEE: It's not done in anger, but it is done to acknowledge the original sin of this nation, and that is slavery.

KING: Not everyone, though, agrees that reparations are necessary. Here's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.

KING: All right. With me now is economist Darrick Hamilton. He's the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University.

Darrick, let's jump in by asking what problem are reparations meant to address today?

DARRICK HAMILTON: Well, one clear problem is the staggering racial wealth gap, but it extends beyond that. It's narratives about inequality more generally. It gets rid of this notion of blacks being undeserving. If we really had a sobering confession of our past and understood how we got here, then we could change narratives not just for black people but poor people in general. We could see resources are really key in people's lives.

KING: And many people have pointed out that, you know, reparations are not just about slavery. They're about the way black Americans were disenfranchised during the Jim Crow period. Talking about reparations for slavery is not new, but it does seem to have become part of the public and political discourse in a different way recently. You've got several Democratic candidates for president suggesting they're thinking about this. You've been looking into this for a while. Has something changed?

HAMILTON: I think the political winds have changed. I think we have someone in the White House who has been very divisive, so this notion of racial reconciliation on the cheap and post-racial has dissipated. And we also have a younger generation that's more focused and keenly advocating racial justice and justice more broadly.

KING: One of the big questions, Darrick, is and has always been, how would this process actually work? A lot of people hear this, and they think, oh, individuals would be cut checks. That leads to some amount of discord. So let me ask you, if reparations were to become real, what's one way of dispersing them?

HAMILTON: Well, the redress in the form of a check - there's nothing wrong with unconditional cash. But we know that if one group of people does not own the means of production, it could have an unintended detrimental effect that enhances inequality. So reparations can be done in the form of land transfers and as well as the means of production. And there's certainly precedent in American history. I mean, we can look at the Homestead Act. We can look at New Deal policies.

The U.S. government is largely responsible for this state-sanctioned terror that has led to the inability of blacks to accumulate assets over time and pass them down from generation to generation, as well as a physical and psychological harm. Likewise, the U.S. government has, in the past, engaged in facilitating its population with capital transfers, so we can certainly do it in the case of reparations if we chose to do so.

KING: And presidential candidates have also talked about things like investing money in black businesses, setting up larger funds. So some of those things, I imagine, will be part of the conversation going forward. Economist Darrick Hamilton of The Ohio State University.

Darrick, thanks so much for joining us.

HAMILTON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.