But H.R. 40, as Berry told me, isn’t about white people paying physical checks to black people. It’s about studying the effects of slavery and Jim Crow, and finding out who, if anyone, should pay and how. Supporters of reparations believe the institutions that benefited from slavery and Jim Crow should pay—the colleges, the legacy businesses, and, yes, the federal government. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2014 Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” thrust the issue back into the national spotlight, put it while testifying today, “the federal government should pay [reparations] because the federal government was deeply complicit” in creating inequality.
A great lie among opponents of reparations is that people who suffered under slavery did not fervently, and consistently, seek what they believed was due to them, Berry told me. Reparations register in the national conversation as blips over time, but in communities that have been fighting inequality, they ring as a steady thumping of a drum.
Jesse Jackson campaigned for president in part on reparations in the 1980s. “There is now a different level of hearing about the same proposition,” he told me in a recent interview—that descendants of slavery and the people who languished under the Jim Crow regime should be compensated. It’s on the lips of Democratic presidential candidates in town halls, on television, and in key voting states such as South Carolina, places where more than 150 years ago, the promise of 40 acres and a mule seemed real. And it’s also a topic of conversation among reparations’ opponents, such as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, yesterday, stated he doesn’t “think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for which none of us living are responsible, is a good idea.”
During his testimony, Coates rebutted McConnell’s claim. “We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance,” he said. “It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.”
Callie House was jailed for seeking reparations. Affirmative action faced sharp opposition starting nearly the moment President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order on the matter in 1961, declaring that government contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Within two decades, it was limited as a form of repair for the past. Momentum can be stymied if another force is pushing harder against it.
As Christina Greer, a political-science professor at Fordham University, told me, reparations will not likely stay at the forefront of the presidential conversation as Democrats move from the primary to the general election. Their attention will turn to immigration or the economy or jobs instead. But, for now, reparations have the nation’s ear.
Berry hesitated when I asked whether she thought reparations would ever come about. “Unless black people mount a mass movement to put pressure on to do it, I don’t think it will happen,” she said, after a pause. “It’s not going to happen in quiet lounges and dinners and among people talking in Congress. It’s going to require pressure from ordinary people.” The question for reparations’ supporters may be: How loud are they willing to get?