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America, We Need to Talk

In a rebuttal to Mitch McConnell—and possibly Joe Biden—Ta-Nehisi Coates helped House Democrats start a conversation on slavery, racism, and reparations.

Zach Gibson/Getty

Speaking to a room full of obscenely wealthy people on Tuesday, Joe Biden took a break from asking for money to praise a segregationist—in the name of civility, of course. Echoing one of his already overused arguments, Biden pointed back to the good old days when politicians found common ground, no matter the hateful things they believed. “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything,” Biden said. “Today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy.” The senators with whom Biden was being “civil” in this instance included a pair of old-time Southern Democrats—Georgia’s Herman Talmadge and Mississippi’s James Eastland—both ardent defenders of segregation. “He never called me ‘boy,’” Biden said of Eastland. “He always called me ‘son.’” Civility in action.

Biden’s comments were many things. Politically, they were a reminder of his extraordinary baggage—his tendency to put his foot in his mouth and his years of opposition to busing and other integration efforts. But they also served as yet another example of how far this country has to go in addressing its racist past—and its still-racist present. Biden, after all, is the current presidential frontrunner and (in some eyes) presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, House Democrats attempted baby steps in that direction at a hearing for H.R. 40. Often shorthanded as “the reparations bill,” the legislation would actually just establish a commission to “examine the institution of slavery,” and the subsequent “de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans.” The commission would then “make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.” Some sort of social or fiscal reparations could be among those recommendations, but that is not directly prescribed in the text.

The legislation was originally introduced by then–Michigan Representative John Conyers in the 1990s, and has been brought back in some form every session since. It’s chief sponsor is now Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. Speakers Wednesday included author Ta-Nehisi Coates, actor and activist Danny Glover, and economist Julianne Malveaux.

Intentionally held to coincide with Juneteenth—a commemoration of the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached enslaved people in Texas—the hearing’s aims were modest. Representative Steve Cohen, chair of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, opened the session by stating that the bill was “an important step in finding effective, long-term solutions to [problems] that can trace their origins to our nation’s shameful history of slavery and anti-black racism.”

And, with some predictable exceptions, what Cohen gaveled in was the kind of conversation H.R. 40 is designed to encourage. Coates, whose 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations,” helped bring the issue back into the mainstream, framing reparations as necessary, if not obligatory. “We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach,” he said. Coates was likely anticipating many of the arguments that Republican representatives and their guests—Quillette writer Coleman Hughes and former NFL safety Burgess Owens—would make over the course of the hearing.

Channeling his inner Thomas Paine in his opening statement, Coates implored the committee to “reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits.” The case for reparations, according to Coates, is a case for acknowledging a healing truth, noting that “if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”

It’s a strong argument for H.R. 40 and for reparations, but it also encourages the kind of discussion that took place in that hearing room—one focused on exposing, accepting, and eventually rectifying many of America’s greatest sins. As Biden’s comments Tuesday demonstrated, the issues here are not—as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissively said this week—something from “150 years ago.” Biden is a walking, talking, still-hoping-to-be-president reminder of how recently his segregationist colleagues served in the Senate. As many on the panel noted, redlining, attacks on voting rights, and police violence are all problems right now. Racism did not go away, as McConnell would have us believe, when the U.S. “elected a black president.”

“When zip code determines what kind of school that you go to, when zip code determines what kind of food you eat,” said economist Malveaux in the hearing, “these are the vestiges of enslavement that a lot of people don’t want to deal with.” The effects—on congressional policy and lived experience—are evident today. “The damages inflicted by enslavement and forced racial exclusionary policies,” said Glover, make some type of reparations “a moral, democratic, and economic imperative.”

Hughes and Owens—who parroted Dinesh D’Souza’s historical fiction with a rhetorical demand that “the Democratic Party pay for all the misery brought to my race”—largely served as a welcome distraction for subcommittee Republicans, who were loath to engage with figures like Coates and Malveaux. But the disparity between serious questions about historical and contemporary injustices—and possible remedies—and Republicans crowing with sophomoric glee about how, actually, the Democrats used to be the racist party, only points to how difficult it will be to move forward on the question of reparations.

There will be other opportunities of course. Senator Cory Booker was the first speaker at the hearing, and he undoubtedly will raise the issue on the presidential campaign trail; it will also possibly come up in at least one Democratic debate. But the challenge, as ever, is to keep voters, the media, and yes, even Congress, talking about reparations and the grave inequities they’re meant to address. Wednesday’s hearing hinted at how truly valuable that conversation can be.