Congress Is Taking On Reparations. At the First Hearing, Academic Historians Were Absent.Breaking News
tags: Congress, historians, reparations, Congressional hearings
For years, colleges have faced growing pressure to redress their historical entanglements with slavery. That pressure ratcheted up another notch on Wednesday as lawmakers gaveled open the first congressional hearing on reparations in more than a decade.
At stake was a House bill that would create a commission to study slavery and subsequent discrimination, and would make recommendations for repairing those racial injustices. It’s an old idea, and the fresh attention it’s getting reflects how reparations have recently moved from the fringes to the center of political debate.
Wednesday’s televised hearing displayed the cultural and political forces driving that change. Celebrities, scholars, pundits — plus one presidential candidate — debated why America needs, or doesn’t need, a historical reckoning. The forum drew a vast crowd, and many were unable to get into the small, wood-paneled hearing room. Those who did interjected boos, gasps, applause, and calls of "You lie!"
For such a prominent historical discussion, one group was notably absent: historians of slavery.
"I’m extremely frustrated as this is many of our lives’ work, and none of us have been invited or asked to testify," Daina Ramey Berry, a slavery historian at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an email to The Chronicle. "We have rarely been called to the table."
It fell in part to the hearing’s star witness, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to channel their scholarship. Coates, famous for his Atlantic essay making the case for reparations, directed much of his testimony to rebutting remarks by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican said on Tuesday that reparations were a bad idea because no one alive today is responsible for "something that happened 150 years ago." Coates emphasized the continuity of white supremacy from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. He urged lawmakers to face the full breadth of American history.
"If Thomas Jefferson matters," he said, "so does Sally Hemings."
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