Reparations and the Demands of Justice

Old political cartoonIn January 2019, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced H.R. 40: The Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act.1 Reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, and systematic segregation and racism in major U.S. institutions is not a new idea, but it has never gained the type of traction that it currently has. In June, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings to begin exploring the idea.2

This bill would not automatically establish reparations. Instead, the bill would “establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”3

WATCH: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responds to the bill

WATCH: Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “The Case for Reparations,” testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties

Discussions about race, racism, and racial justice are becoming more central parts of our political discourse. The rising tide of white nationalism and white supremacy,4 including their increasing visibility in public spaces,5 has helped spur discussion about the legacy of racism in the United States. Movements and organizations such as Black Lives Matter and the Equal Justice Initiative, as well as publications such as Between the World and Me, The New Jim Crow, and the 1619 Project, have focused attention the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, economic exclusion, and mass incarceration.

In this social and political environment, the debate over reparations is taken more seriously—but is also more contentious—than it has been at other times.

Arguments in support of the bill:

The text of the bill contains arguments—findings—that support passage of the bill. Among those findings are:

  • Approximately 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and colonies that became the United States from 1619 to 1865.
  • The institution of slavery was constitutionally and statutorily sanctioned by the government of the United States from 1789 through 1865.
  • The slavery that flourished in the United States constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans’ life, liberty, African citizenship rights, and cultural heritage, and denied them the fruits of their own labor.
  • Following the abolition of slavery, the U.S. government, at the federal, state, and local levels, continued to perpetuate, condone, and often profit from practices that continued to brutalize and disadvantage African Americans, including sharecropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow, redlining, unequal education, and disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system.
  • As a result of the historic and continued discrimination, African Americans continue to suffer debilitating economic, educational, and health hardships, including but not limited to having nearly 1,000,000 black people incarcerated; an unemployment rate more than twice the current white unemployment rate; and an average of less than 1/16th of the wealth of white families, a disparity which has worsened, not improved over time.6

Arguments opposing the bill:

  • Charles Lane, a columnist for the Washington Post, argues that reparations may be unconstitutional because black people living today cannot show direct injury from slavery in the same way that other groups—such as Japanese Americans who lived through internment—have been able to do.7
  • Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, argues that reparations would not accomplish what they are intended to accomplish and that the policies that would most help African Americans, and all Americans, would be economic and educational reform aimed at creating a dynamic and growing economy.8
  • Coleman Hughes, an African-American writer and student, argued against reparations before a congressional subcommittee, saying that reparations “would insult many black Americans by putting a price on the suffering of their ancestors. If we were to pay reparations today, we would only divide the country further, making it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today.”9
  • Representative Mike Johnson (R-La.) has spoken of “the injustice of monetary reparations from current taxpayers for the sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago.”10

The debate over this issue is taking place in the primary campaigns of Democratic presidential hopefuls, and Congress will continue to consider and possibly vote on the bill.


Discussion Questions

  1. What do you view to be the strongest arguments for and against the idea of reparations?
  2. If you were a member of Congress, what more would you want to know before voting on this bill?
  3. Setting aside the question of reparations, do you think that establishing a commission to investigate the impacts of slavery, segregation, and systemic racism is a good idea? Why or why not?
  4. If you are opposed to the idea of reparations in the form of cash or a check, do you think something else should be done to address the legacy and injustice of slavery and segregation? If so, what? If no, why not?


How to Get Involved

Students can continue to follow the bill on GovTrack.

Students can weigh in—as a group assignment or individually—by visiting this page.

Students can also research their member of Congress to see which committees they sit on. If their representative sits on the Judiciary Committee, they should consider contacting that member while the bill is still in committee.


Further Reading


Featured Image Credit: 19th Century Engraving via New York Public Library Digital Collection (Public Domain) and Wikipedia
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] ABC News:
[5] Inside Higher Ed:
[7] Washington Post:
[8] National Review:
[9] BBC:
[10] Ibid.


Religious Freedom or the Right to Discriminate?

Protestors in Washington, DCOn August 15, the Department of Labor published proposed changes that would expand federal contractors’ ability to claim a religious exemption to equal opportunity and anti-discrimination rules.1 The proposed rule change, as written, could allow employers with federal contracts to fire or refuse to hire LGBTQ employees, and could even be used to fire unmarried pregnant women if an employer claimed that it was against their religion to support having sex out of wedlock.

The Department of Labor cites recent Supreme Court cases, such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014)and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018).3 In each of those cases, the Court allowed businesses to claim that the U.S. right to religious freedom exempted them from certain state or federal regulations. (Masterpiece Cakeshop was decided on narrow grounds and the Court cautioned that it should not necessarily be read as precedent.)

Drawing on opinions expressed by the Supreme Court in those cases and in other cases, the Department of Labor’s rule change would allow groups and companies with federal contracts that identify as religious to “make employment decisions consistent with their sincerely held religious tenets and beliefs without fear of sanction by the federal government.”4

The proposed rule is stirring controversy, as many civil rights activists see the change as discriminatory. Patricia Shiu, who oversaw the federal contracting office under President Barack Obama, told Vox that the new rule has the potential to be interpreted very broadly. As Shiu explained to Vox: “The new rule would gut anti-discrimination protections in a ‘major and transformational way.’ While the rule seems to target LGBTQ individuals … it’s so broad that it creates a loophole for employers to discriminate against anyone. … [Companies] could ask for a religious exemption so they don’t have to hire women, by saying that their religion dictates that women cannot work outside the home.”5

Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), warned that the rule “authorizes discrimination in the name of religion.”6 The ACLU also tweeted, “Nearly one-quarter of employees in the United States work for an employer that has a contract with the federal government. This rule seeks to undermine our civil rights protections and encourages discrimination in the workplace—and we will work to stop it.”7

Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the LGBTQ rights advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign, called the rule “a license to discriminate.”8

An official with the Department of Labor defended the rule, explaining to ABC News: “The Department’s regulations for a long time have allowed religious organizations to take applicants’ and employees’ religion into account when making employment decisions, that’s not new. This proposal only seeks to clarify who qualifies as a religious organization and what religion means under the law. That’s it.”9

In addition, acting Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella told The Christian Post, “Today’s proposed rule helps to ensure the civil rights of religious employers are protected. As people of faith with deeply held religious beliefs are making decisions on whether to participate in federal contracting, they deserve clear understanding of their obligations and protections under the law.”10


Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think that business owners and employers should have the right to refuse to hire someone on religious grounds? Why or why not?
  2. Are there some types of organizations (such as religious charities) that should have the right to use religion in their hiring and firing practices? Should that same right extend to all employers?
  3. How does this controversy connect to other issues you have heard about in the news? In history?
  4. Do you think the Department of Labor should adopt this new rule? Why or why not?


How to Get Involved

This proposed rule change is open for public comment until September 16, 2019. Anyone can submit a comment, and these comments must be reviewed and considered by the executive branch before it makes the change official.

Read the full proposed rule and submit a comment here:

Implementing Legal Requirements Regarding the Equal Opportunity Clause’s Religious Exemption

Consider having students work in small groups or individually to submit a comment supporting or challenging the proposed rule.


Other Resources


Featured Image Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
[1] U.S. Department of Labor:
[2] New York Times:
[3] Axios:
[4] U.S. Department of Labor:
[5] Vox:
[6] Washington Post:
[7] United Press International:
[8] Washington Post:
[9] ABC News:
[10] The Christian Post: