In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois declared in his Address to the Nations of the World, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line [and] the question of how far differences in race…will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.”
It is of course evident upon reading this that Du Bois was not talking about any one country in particular. However, it would seem to require a special kind of detachment for a citizen of the United States—a country wherein the color line has so thoroughly and uniquely conditioned all aspects of national life (and done so at such great cost to one specific group)—to not consider that quandary in relation to our own nation. It arguably cries out to us more imploringly, more urgently, than to any place else upon the globe.
H.R.40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—is (for all of its many flaws) at its core an appeal to provide as precise an answer as possible to the subject of targeted exclusion that Du Bois pondered over a century ago. And I would submit that if the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line, then the problem of the twenty-first century for America is the balance line; that is, the sum total of those “differences in race” and how in our country in particular they have, across generations, been made to so rigidly delimit access to opportunity for a specific people. This is what H.R.40, in its most effective form, could survey and scrupulously enumerate. In so doing it would reify what has heretofore remained a dim and notional prospect. It would provide committed grassroots activists with a meaningful legislative lodestone they could then leverage and pressure elected officials, and it would constitute a significant first step on the road to transformational justice.
Yet for as critical as H.R.40 would be in realizing that objective—something that progressives have long and solemnly averred to want—it has historically received about as much interest in being taken up by lawmakers as a hornets’ nest might after being tossed into a room full of highly allergic children. That is, at least, until this past year.
In between the 115th Congress of 2017-18 and the 116th Congress of 2019-20, something unprecedented occurred. Co-sponsorship of H.R.40 surged by an astounding 285 percent, increasing from 35 to 135 signatories. This represents a seismic shift in support for a bill that, as recently as 2015’s Congressional session (a full 26 years after it was first introduced by Rep. John Conyers) could not manage to attract more than two cosponsors. And while analyses of this pronounced and abrupt spike in support for H.R.40 has specifically identified everything from a 2014 Ta-Nehisi Coates essay, to a book by Randall Robinson that was published in 2000, to the bill’s development under the decidedly languorous and doddery aegis of N’COBRA since 2001, such reasoning would seem to conceal more than it reveals.
Virtually unmentioned in the prevailing commentary about the degree of attention that reparations is presently receiving is the movement whose very essence has always been to seek that issue’s fulfillment. The American Descendants of Slavery movement (#ADOS)—cofounded in late 2016 by Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore—has taken the issue of reparations and reinjected it into the mainstream of U.S. political discourse, where it has hit like a syringe of epinephrine to the thigh. #ADOS alone has been responsible for the intensifying groundswell of energy around the long ignored matter of providing reparative justice for the group whose exclusion has served as the very grist of our nation’s great wealth. And for the predictable ensemble of notoriety hunters to attribute H.R.40’s present visibility to anything but #ADOS’s relentless and full-throated advocacy would seem to require a kind of double-jointedness of the intellect along with a bevy of ulterior intentions.
Indeed, much of #ADOS’s criticism of H.R.40 is that, in its present configuration, it is a piece of legislation ripe for the grift. Having been shaped principally by the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) and N’COBRA, the language of the bill gores the specific justice claim that is held by ADOS upon the U.S. government and in turn promotes an eligibility criteria so vague and inclusive as to be essentially useless. Moreover, it does this all while auguring a generous payout for the committee and its contractees that would be charged with carrying out the study. As Professor Sandy Darity at Duke University notes, if H.R.40 were to receive a hearing as is—and pass—it would effectively just call the hounds to the quarry.
Dr. Darity has been vocal in his opposition to the designs of these bad faith actors who—while ostensibly beating the drum of advocacy for repair—in fact seem to prefer incubating a nebulous idea of repair in some subcommittee. For whatever reason, they have shown no indication of incorporating the actionable recommendations that Dr. Darity has put forward for inclusion into H.R.40, ones that would ensure the integrity of the bill’s mission and, of course, appropriately remunerate the living descendants of American chattel slavery. Even as detractors of the movement and colleagues have sought to chide and dissuade Dr. Darity from any further involvement and association, he has continued to insist on the righteousness and singular viability of the #ADOS case for reparations. His decades of historical and economic research support that righteousness, and the framework of repair that he has developed would be—if implemented—what transforms H.R.40 from an insulting placebo of justice into a real curative for the group’s economic disrepair.
And to the extent that certain people feel the need to cast doubt on Dr. Darity’s associations in this space in the first place, they would perhaps do better to consider N’COBRA’s motivations for inviting him to speak at their symposiums and appear on their radio shows, using his cachet to boost their ticket sales and listenership only to then, in return, completely disrespect his research by putting his proposals for their H.R.40 bill on ice. That seems, to me, to be an arrangement that speaks to exactly the sort of grubby acquisitiveness in the handling of H.R.40 that Dr. Darity is looking to head off with his edits.
Ultimately, the #ADOS-Darity framework is the only way this thing sees even a sliver of light outside of subcommittee. White Americans will, without question, never support H.R.40 as it currently stands. Nor should we. Because, suffice it to say, those of us who are sympathetic to the cause of reparations have likely arrived at that position through an awareness that the whiteness by which our families derive and share advantage is a direct outcome of other families’ shared history of specific and targeted exclusion. Those families are ADOS. And the very least thing that we can do for those who’ve been excluded from meaningful participation in national life in such an incomparable way is to advocate from a position that it is they alone who we owe. To know who we owe: this is the simplest and most basic prerequisite for a white American who wants to participate in an authentic project of racial justice. It is how we begin, finally, to formulate a real solution to Du Bois’s century-old question.