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The House might pass a long-ignored bill to study reparations for slavery. Why now?

My research looks at how Black legislators changed the Democratic Party — and how becoming party insiders changed them.

- March 22, 2022

The U.S. House of Representatives appears poised to pass a bill to establish a reparations commission, which John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) first introduced in 1989. Conyers regularly sponsored the bill — known as H.R. 40, for the “40 acres and a mule” promise made to formerly enslaved Black people by a Union general in 1865 — and usually got about 30 co-sponsors, mostly Black lawmakers. The bill never made it out of committee.

After Conyers retired in 2017, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) took over the bill. In the last congressional session, she won more than 173 co-sponsors, including a sizable number of White Democrats. This round, the bill has 196 backers; the bill was voted out of committee in April 2021.

What changed? Why is H.R. 40 suddenly passable?

Several developments worked in the bill’s favor. Black lawmakers are now key players in Washington. While Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members were once critics and outsiders in an unresponsive Democratic Party, they are now party insiders. And the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 pushed many Democratic legislators to take Black concerns more seriously.

As Black legislators have gotten more powerful, they’ve also become less radical

Political scientists Rufus P. Browning, Dale Rogers Marshall and David H. Tabb call it “minority political incorporation” when minority groups join a dominant policymaking coalition. Based on that definition, Black people have now politically incorporated in Washington. The United States elected a Black president in 2008 and 2012, and then in 2020 saw a Black and South Asian American woman become vice president. The Black Lives Matter movement that became national in 2014 in response to Michael Brown’s death in Missouri and Eric Garner’s in New York has made Congress more amenable to racial bills. The overwhelming response to George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 foregrounded racial justice as a national and international concern. Finally, a number of candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, including Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), expressed their support for Black reparations.

The Floyd protests were the broadest in U.S. history, spreading even to White, small-town America

I argue that incorporation is a two-sided process that changes both the minority legislators and the dominant party. As new groups win greater influence over the policymaking process, they must also accommodate the dominant governing coalition’s policy interests if they want to advance and become effective political leaders. My research finds historical evidence that Black Democratic legislators have become less radical as they have been incorporated. And as Black Democrats who form the CBC, established in 1971, have become more powerful, they have also become less willing to openly defy congressional party leaders or either Republican or Democratic presidents.

Some of my research involved a statistical analysis of Black roll-call votes using the important Poole-Rosenthal scores from 1977 to 2019. Poole-Rosenthal scores were developed to track legislative behavior over time and run from -1 for the most liberal to +1 for most conservative, with 0 as the moderate midpoint.

I found that while House Democrats have become more liberal over time, Black Democrats have become more moderate. And while Black Democrats are still more liberal than Democrats in general in the House, their ideological scores are significantly closer to the House Democrats’ average scores today than in the 1970s and 1980s.

Black Democrats’ average score has fallen from -0.56 in 1977 to -0.48 in 2009 to -0.46 in 2019, while House Democrats’ average score has changed from -0.29 in 1977 to -0.36 in 2009. This moderation has enabled Black members of Congress to hold leadership party positions and alter the party’s platform to be more friendly to Black political interests.

A different generation and an exceptional period

Reparations, however, is a much more radical racial policy than, say, the budget proposals that the CBC endorses as more liberal alternatives to the standard budget. Of course, the current bill calls only for a commission to study reparations — but even that legitimizes the idea.

Two factors make this possible. First is the persistence of the old guard of Black legislators, who still serve in large numbers in Congress — and who are the ones who have sponsored the bill. Controlling for other factors including year, my research has found that older Black Democratic House legislators have been the most liberal. Conyers, who retired at the age of 88, and Jackson Lee, who is 72, belong to a generation that was politicized during the 1960s civil rights movement, unlike younger Black legislators — and they have ascended into important positions in the party.

Second, the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 summer of protests changed the national political discussion — making Washington more receptive to racial demands. A June 2020 poll taken by the Pew Research Center showed that two-thirds of U.S. respondents said they support the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2016, only 4 in 10 U.S. respondents supported it. (Support for Black Lives Matter then dropped in September 2020 to 55 percent nationally, still an increase over 2016.) Political scientist Daniel Gillion finds that protests directly influence Congress. In particular, legislators from districts that had protests reported in the New York Times from 1960 to 1995 became more likely to vote in a liberal direction on racial policy concerns. Political scientist LaGina Gause finds similar results. Because Black Lives Matter protests happened in every U.S. congressional district, this activism probably shifted the climate to enable the reparations bill to move forward.

Prospects for H.R. 40’s future

Still, the approaching midterm elections may close the window of opportunity for H.R. 40 to pass. Even if it passes the House, few expect it to pass the Senate. Some legislators are reportedly pressuring President Biden to create a reparations commission through executive order if Congress fails to act.

With midterms generally favoring the party out of power, Republicans are expected to win majorities in both chambers in the November elections. Republicans are dead set against H.R. 40. Polling shows that reparations for Black slavery are opposed by 90 percent of Republicans and by a majority of White Americans.

Nonetheless, Black congressional leaders have helped transform U.S. politics. Black people are accepted as political leaders of major cities and in national government. Discussion of reparations for slavery is underway in Congress today because of a mix of Black political clout and activists who continue to demand a radical vision of empowerment and racial justice.

Katherine Tate is a professor of political science at Brown University and author most recently of “Concordance: Black Lawmaking in the U.S. Congress from Carter to Obama” (University of Michigan Press, 2020).