Sen. Cory Booker said in a panel that the U.S. needs to address "persistent inequalities" experienced by African Americans by discussing reparations, the idea that the descendants of slaves should be compensated for the injustices and cruelty their ancestors experienced.

 

Booker said that the nation has "yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country's founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality. These disparities don't just harm black communities, they harm all communities."

A House Judiciary subcommittee debated H.R. 40, a bill that would study how the U.S. would implement reparations to black Americans, amid a national conversation about what the federal government owes descendants of slaves. Booker, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Danny Glover were among the witnesses who testified before the panel.

The panel took place on "Juneteenth," a holiday which commemorates the day of emancipation for slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, as well as the general emancipation of all slaves. A few hundred people lined up outside the doors of the hearing room before it began, including a line of people raising their fists in the black power symbol. Dozens of people were ushered into the overflow room to view the hearing on video. The audience in the hearing was vocal, often applauding or booing certain witnesses.

The panel took place the day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he believed rights for black Americans had advanced enough to render reparations unnecessary.

"I don't think that reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing land mark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president," McConnell said. McConnell once made it his mission to make President Obama a one-term president, and worked to block legislation supported by Obama throughout the tenure of the first African American president.

As the witness in the first panel, Booker emphasized the significance of H.R. 40.

"This is a very important hearing. It is historic. It is urgent," Booker, who has introduced the Senate version of the bill, said. He argued that black Americans deserve compensation not only for slavery, but for the legacy of domestic terrorism against black people post-Civil War, segregation, as well as for redlining, a practice used by mortgage providers that kept black people from obtaining mortgages.

"We as a nation must address these persistent inequalities," Booker said. "It's about time we find common ground and common purpose to deal with this ugly history."

Booker's proposed American Opportunity Accounts Act, commonly known as "baby bonds," would provide every child born in the United States with a $1,000 savings bond, regardless of race. The child would receive an additional deposit from the government every year, with those in the poorest families receiving up to $2,000. The child would be able to access the account at age 18, and only for allowable uses, like education and home ownership. The idea of the proposal is to help reduce the racial income inequality gap.

The second panel included several experts on reparations to testify. Coates wrote the seminal 2014 essay in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations," which stirred interest in reparations among reporters and politicians.