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Historic first vote in US Congress to right the wrongs of slavery

Late Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. first introduced the US slavery reparations bill in 1989.   -  
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Charles Dharapak/AP2009


A US congressional committee on Wednesday passed a bill to provide financial compensation for the wrongs of slavery in the United States, a historic first vote in a country still marked by racial discrimination.

It was first introduced by the late Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1989 and had never advanced to a committee vote until Wednesday.

The bill was passed by the House Judiciary Committee by a vote of 25 to 17, with all Democrats voting in favour and all Republicans against it.

The lower house of Congress, where the Democrats have a majority, will then have to approve it in plenary session, at an undetermined date. But the fate of the bill is uncertain in the Senate, where Democrats will need to secure the votes of at least ten Republicans for it to pass.

The bill calls for the creation of a commission of experts to make proposals on government compensation for the descendants of some four million Africans forcibly brought to the United States between 1619 and 1865 when slavery was abolished.

It addresses the "injustice, cruelty, brutality, and fundamental inhumanity of slavery" and the disparities that the black American minority still suffer today.

The "historic" vote is intended to "continue a national debate on how to combat the mistreatment of African Americans during slavery, segregation and the structural racism that remains endemic in our society today," Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat, said before the vote.

African-American Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee implored her peers not to "ignore the pain, the history, and the wisdom of this committee.

President Joe Biden, also a Democrat, who met Tuesday with African-American members of Congress, has "pledged" to support the bill, she said.

But Republican members of the committee, while acknowledging the brutality of slavery, oppose the legislation.

"It takes us away from the important dream of judging someone on the content of their character and not the colour of their skin," said Republican representative Chip Roy.

The legislation, first drafted nearly 30 years ago, has become central again since the deaths of several African-Americans in police actions prompted the US to look more closely at its slave-owning past and the multiple discrimination suffered by the black minority, which makes up nearly 13% of the population.

The vote came as a white police officer is on trial in Minneapolis, accused of killing a black man in his 40s, George Floyd, who has become a global symbol of victims of police violence.

- Local initiatives -

Despite the advances made in the fight for their civil rights in the 1960s, African Americans still have lower levels of education, poorer social security coverage and shorter lives than whites. They are also disproportionately incarcerated compared to the rest of the US population.

In 2019, the median annual income of a black household was $43,771, compared with $71,664 for a white household, according to official statistics.

A group of 13 experts will have to make proposals for compensation "for the institution of slavery and racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans".

These experts must make recommendations on how to calculate this compensation, what form it should take and who should be eligible.

The issue of compensation had been raised by several candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary as part of the broader debate on racial inequality and income disparities.

Prior to a decision at the federal level, the issue of reparations has already been addressed at the local level.

The small city of Evanston, near Chicago, became in March the first to decide to compensate its black residents with $10 million over the next 10 years.

Qualifying residents will receive $25,000 each to help finance their home loans or renovations.

And in 2019, students at the prestigious Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., symbolically approved the creation of a fund to benefit the descendants of slaves sold in the 19th century by the Jesuits who founded the institution.

Polling has found long-standing resistance in the U.S. to reparations to descendants of slaves, divided along racial lines. 

Only 29% of Americans voiced support for paying cash reparations, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll taken in the fall of 2019. Most Black Americans favored reparations, 74%, compared with 15% of white Americans.

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