Coleman Hughes

Opening Statement on Slavery Reparations to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary

delivered 19 June 2019, Washington, D.C.

Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Thank you, Chairman Cohen, Ranking Member Johnson, and Members of the Committee:

Itís an honor to testify on a topic as important as this one.

Nothing Iím about to say is meant to minimize the horror and brutality of slavery and Jim Crow. Racism is a bloody stain on this countryís history, and I consider our failure to pay reparations directly to freed slaves after the Civil War to be one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by the U.S. government.

But I worry that our desire to fix the past compromises our ability to fix the present. Think about what weíre doing today. Weíre spending our time debating a bill [H.R. 40] that mentions slavery 25 times but incarceration only once, in an era with no black slaves but nearly a million black prisoners; a bill that doesnít mention homicide once, at a time when the Center for Disease Control reports homicide as the number one cause of death for young black men.

Iím not saying that acknowledging history doesnít matter. It does. Iím saying thereís a difference between acknowledging history and allowing history to distract us from the problems we face today.

In 2008, the House of Representatives formally apologized for slavery and Jim Crow. In 2009, the Senate did the same. Black people donít need another apology. We need safer neighborhoods and better schools. We need a less punitive criminal justice system. We need affordable health care. And none of these things can be achieved through reparations for slavery.

Nearly everyone close to me -- Nearly everyone close to me told me not to testify today. They told me that even though Iíve only ever voted for Democrats, Iíd be perceived as a Republican and therefore hated by half the country. Others told me that by distancing myself from Republicans I would end up angering the other half of the country. And the sad truth is that they were both right. Thatís how suspicious weíve become of one another. Thatís how divided we are as a nation.

If we were to pay reparations today, we would only divide the country further, making it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today; we would insult many black Americans by putting a price on the suffering of their ancestors; and we would turn the relationship between black Americans and white Americans from a coalition into a transaction -- from a union between citizens into a lawsuit between plaintiffs and defendants.

Ta-Nehisi Coates -- Opening Statement to Congress on Slavery Reparations

What we should do is pay reparations to black Americans who actually grew up under Jim Crow and were directly harmed by second-class citizenship, people like my grandparents.

But paying reparations to all descendants of slaves is a mistake. Take me, for example. I was born three decades after the end of Jim Crow into a privileged household in the suburbs. I attend an Ivy League school. Yet Iím also descended from slaves who worked on Thomas Jeffersonís Monticello plantation. So reparations for slavery would allocate federal resources to me but not to an American with the wrong ancestry -- even if that person is living paycheck to paycheck and working multiple jobs to support a family.

You might call that justice.

I call it justice for the dead at the price of justice for the living.

I understand that reparations are about what people are owed, regardless of how well theyíre doing. I understand that. But the people who were owed for slavery are no longer here, and weíre not entitled to collect on their debts. Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims. So the moment you give me reparations, youíve made me into a victim without my consent.

Audience Member: Opt out.

Mr. Hughes: Not just that. Youíve made one-third of black Americans who poll against reparations into victims without their consent. And black Americans have fought too long for the right to define themselves to be spoken for in such a condescending manner.

The question is not what America owes me by virtue of my ancestry. The question is what all Americans owe each other by -- by virtue of being citizens of the same nation.

And the obligation of citizenship is not transactional. Itís not contingent on ancestry. It never expires. And it canít be paid off.

For all these reasons bill H.R. 40 is a moral and political mistake.

Thank you.

Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

See also: Coleman Hughes Official Website

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