In an historic move on April 14, the House Judiciary Committee voted to move forward House Resolution 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, or H.R. 40. The bill was introduced in 1989 by the late Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), but was never passed. Since then, H.R. 40 has been introduced yearly at every congressional session, most recently by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), and would create a 13-member commission to study the effects of slavery, hold hearings and recommend “appropriate remedies” to Congress.

In Maryland, on Aug. 9, the Greenbelt City Council approved Mayor Colin Byrd’s resolution of letting the voters decide. The establishment of a Greenbelt Reparations Commission will be on the ballot on election day, Nov. 2, which Byrd said makes Greenbelt the first American city to formally take up the issue of reparations. If approved by voters, the commission would have 21 members appointed by the city council and would develop recommendations on whether or not and how to establish local reparations for African-American and Native-American residents of Greenbelt. 

While the topic of reparations has been on the table for quite some time, it is perpetually slow moving. “The issue is that there has never been a Congress or a president committed to reparations. There have been some individual members of Congress who support it. There have even been champions of the issue, like John Conyers and Sheila Jackson Lee, but, basically, there’s not enough of them. Leaders in the House, Senate and White House have never made it a priority, so it’s on them. By the way, that has so far been the case regardless of what party is in power.”

Even though H.R. 40 is closer to becoming law than ever before, there is still a long way to go. “I expect a long period of preparation, especially considering it took the House until 2008 to field an apology for enslavement and then 2009 for the Senate to put out its version. What we can do is keep the conversation in everyone’s mind,” Ed Ingebretsen, Ph.D., Georgetown University emeritus professor, said. 

The federal government’s impotence is what spurred Byrd into action. “I’ve supported reparations for a long time, and the traditional conversation around reparations centers around the federal government. Now that Sheila Jackson Lee has taken up the bill in the wake of [John Conyers’] death, the bill has moved a little bit further down the field, but it’s still pretty far from the goal line in Congress. Over the past couple of years, especially with racial justice becoming a more salient issue, I saw that a few cities in other states were taking some steps related to reparations, and I started to consider the possibility of us doing something in Greenbelt.”

As Byrd referenced, other states have addressed reparations, including New York, where Assembly Bill A3080A “establishes the New York state community commission on reparations remedies to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, the impact of these forces on living African Americans and to make recommendations on appropriate remedies; makes an appropriation therefor; and provides for the repeal of such provisions.”

Likewise, California is doing a two-year study into how the state might compensate African Americans for slavery and its lingering effects. 

“There are lots of state initiatives. There is movement,” Ingebretsen said.

Though the “40 acres and a mule” mantra is often associated with reparations, no one truly knows what reparations would look like, exactly. However, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), website, H.R. 40 would establish a 15-member commission to study the effects of slavery and discriminatory policies on African Americans and recommend appropriate remedies, including reparations. The commission would report its findings and recommendations to the Congress 18 months after its first meeting and terminate 90 days after the report is submitted.

Additionally, H.R. 40 would authorize the appropriation of $20 million for expenses of the commission, including payroll and support costs for members and support staff. Assuming appropriation of the authorized amount, CBO estimates that implementing the bill would cost $20 million over the 2021-2026 period.

Reparations can come in all different forms however. For instance, President Joe Biden announced a series of initiatives to expand Black homeownership during a speech in Tulsa, Okla. commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Throughout all the uncertainty, Byrd remains optimistic. “I have an open mind and don’t think I should pre-judge or pre-determine exactly what a commission might ultimately recommend, but I think, generally speaking, I see success as the community is learning more about history and about racial injustice. And I see success as the city is taking tangible, financially feasible, bold actions to help our Black (and Native American) residents when it comes to their wealth.”