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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Slavery Reparations?

Q: Would a bill in Congress require looking into possible reparations for slavery?

A: Such a bill exists but President Obama has nothing to do with it, contrary to what a chain e-mail implies.


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Didn’t take long, did it? —THIS IS A REAL BILL

Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act (Introduced in House)

HR 40 IH

1st Session
H. R. 40

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We’ve had several queries about this claim, starting in early February not long after President Barack Obama was inaugurated. Some versions of the e-mail maintain (falsely) that a bill to investigate possible reparations for slavery was part of the new administration’s stimulus legislation. All carry the subject line "It didn’t take long, did it?" implying none too subtly that Obama, motivated by race, is somehow behind it.  He isn’t.

The fact is that Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, has introduced a version of this bill in every Congress since 1989. Back then, Obama was a law student. As Conyers noted in remarks he inserted into the Congressional Record when he introduced the measure most recently, "This 111th Congress marks the 20th anniversary of this bill’s introduction." That was Jan. 6, two weeks before Obama was sworn in.

The measure would set up a seven-member commission with an $8-million budget to examine the legacy of slavery and make recommendations to Congress regarding "appropriate remedies." These would specifically include "whether the Government of the United States should offer a formal apology" and whether "any form of compensation to the descendants of African slaves is warranted." The bill would also "acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States."

Conyers first introduced the bill not long after Congress in 1988 enacted a law that apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and provided a $20,000 cash payment to each surviving former internee. He has said the commission he seeks is no different from the one that that led to reparations for Japanese Americans, but he says that the "remedies" mentioned in his bill wouldn’t necessarily "equate to monetary compensation" for descendants of slaves.

So far Conyers’s bill has gone nowhere. It was referred to a House subcommittee on Feb. 9, and there it still sits with no hearings or votes scheduled. Besides Conyers, it has four co-sponsors.

The high point so far for this legislation came in December 2007, when hearings on the bill took place before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. It was the first time the bill had received a public hearing. Nevertheless, the measure later died in the subcommittee without advancing to the full House Judiciary Committee, of which Conyers is chair.

Obama’s Position 

Obama hasn’t endorsed the reparations idea. During a presidential primary debate on CNN July 24, 2007, he suggested that he favored spending to improve education instead.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper: Senator Obama, your position on reparations?

Obama: I think the reparations we need right here in South Carolina is investment, for example, in our schools. I did a . . .I did a town hall meeting in Florence, South Carolina, in an area called the corridor of shame. They’ve got buildings that students are trying to learn in that were built right after the Civil War. And we’ve got teachers who are not trained to teach the subjects they’re teaching and high dropout rates.

We’ve got to understand that there are corridors of shame all across the country. And if we make the investments and understand that those are our children, that’s the kind of reparations that are really going to make a difference in America right now.

When Cooper asked all eight of the Democratic presidential candidates whether any of them favored reparations, only Rep. Dennis Kucinich said yes: "I am. The Bible says we shall be and must be repairers of the breach. And a breach has occurred."

-Brooks Jackson 


U.S. House. "H. R. 40." (as introduced 6 Jan 2009.)

U.S. Congressional Record. 6 Jan 2009: E9.

CNN/YouTube Presidential Debate. Transcript. 24 Jul 2007.