Talk of reparations for slavery moves to state capitols (part 1)

Pennsylvania state Rep. Chris Rabb, a Democrat, announced plans last month to introduce sweeping legislation that would award reparations to African American state residents. As the nation debates the merits of reparations, lawmakers in California, New York, Texas and Vermont have introduced legislation exploring compensation to the descendants of slaves. (photo courtesy of Democratic Pennsylvania state Rep. Chris Rabb)

(Stateline) — Four centuries after the first African slaves landed on Virginia shores, state lawmakers across the country are taking up the debate over how to atone for what’s been called ‘America’s Original Sin.’

This year, Democratic lawmakers in California, New York and Vermont (states that either outlawed slavery before the Civil War or never allowed it) have introduced legislation that would apologize for their state’s role in slavery; recognize the lasting, negative impact of slavery on current generations of African Americans; and explore monetary reparations.

In April, Democratic lawmakers in Texas introduced a bill urging the passage of a federal reparations bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, also a Democrat, that same month. (Sponsors did not return Stateline calls for comment.) And in September, Florida lawmakers introduced a $10 million reparations bill for the descendants of victims of a specific, 1920 racial atrocity, the Ocoee massacre.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania state Rep. Chris Rabb announced plans to introduce a reparations bill this legislative session that would entitle African Americans in the Keystone State to remuneration. But first, the Democrat said, he’s organized a team of researchers to identify every state law since 1776 that’s had a “racist impact” on the state’s African American population.

He proposes a statewide reparations plan for Pennsylvania that would involve multiple tiers of compensation, with the greatest awards going to residents who can prove they descended from generations of black Pennsylvanians. To qualify for reparations, residents would have to prove they’ve lived as African Americans through government records such as census records or birth certificates.

“When we wonder why these racial disparities endure, we have to start at the origin,” said Rabb, who is Black. “It’s policy. It’s not a cultural deficit. It’s not bad decisions by individual black people. It’s the system.”

To be sure, except for one California resolution that passed with bipartisan support, none of the state bills has yet made it past committee. All were introduced by Democrats.

But as the United States wrestles with rising incidents of hate crimes and policymakers become increasingly conscious of slavery’s long-term effects on issues ranging from criminal justice policy to educational achievement gaps, this year’s legislative activity marks the first time that states have explored reparations in a significant way.

“I’m surprised to see the action going on at the state level,” said Thomas Craemer, associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, who became interested in reparations because of the history of the Holocaust and the postwar reparations program in his native Germany.

“Suddenly reparations has hit the mainstream,” said Craemer, who is part of a national team of academics organized by Duke University professor William Darity crafting a proposal that outlines the argument for reparations and how they would be implemented.

Critics of state reparations, meanwhile, argue the issue should be handled at the federal level, and they wonder how the proposals would be paid for and who would qualify to receive the money.

“It’s a weird sense of accountability,” said Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University in Virginia who opposes all reparations.

“What people are suggesting is that we help a Black person of today by punishing a White person of today for what a White person of yesterday did to a Black of yesterday,” said Williams, who is Black. “That’s a perverse sense of justice in my opinion.”