Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates called out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday for his claim that it didn’t make sense to pay reparations for something that occurred more than a lifetime ago.
“This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance: that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations,” Coates told a House panel discussing the possibility of reparations for slavery. He noted that the United States paid pensions to heirs of Civil War soldiers into this century and continues to honor treaties hundreds of years old. “We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance.”
McConnell argued against reparations when he spoke to reporters in a press conference on Tuesday.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” he said. “I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it.”
Coates delivered his remarks Wednesday before a House Judiciary subcommittee in a hearing on H.R. 40, a bill that would create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. It was the first hearing held on slavery reparations in over a decade.
“The Case For Reparations,” Coates’ 2014 essay for The Atlantic, is largely credited with bringing the issue back into the national spotlight.
“Enslavement reigned for 250 years on this shore,” Coates said in his remarks. “For a century after the Civil War black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror — a terror that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”
He spoke to the continued impact of slavery that occurred during McConnell’s lifetime: the execution of 14-year-old George Stinney in 1944; the blinding of Isaac Woodard by police in 1946; “a regime premised on electoral theft” in McConnell’s birth state of Alabama; the harassment and jailing of those who pushed for civil rights legislation.
“That is the thing about Sen. McConnell’s ‘something,’” he said. “It was 150 years ago and it was right now.”
Many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have expressed support for the implementation or consideration of some form of slavery reparations, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated support for the bill.
If passed in the House, the bill is unlikely to find support in the Senate.
“The question really is, not whether we will be tied to the ‘somethings’ of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them,” Coates concluded.