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Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates Destroy Mitch McConnell’s Feckless Dismissal of the Need for Reparations

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates testifies during a congressional hearing on slavery reparations

For the first time in 12 years, a House panel held a hearing to discuss the possibility of issuing reparations for slavery. The hearing was called today, on Juneteenth, to discuss H.R. 40, a bill written by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee from Texas, which calls for a commission “to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans.”

So it’s a bill to study whether or not action needs to be taken regarding reparations and an official historical apology. But according to Mitch McConnell (ugh), even that is too much. Here’s what he said on the issue yesterday:

First of all, this is not the distant problem McConnell and so many others want to believe it is. These are the memories of our generation’s grandparents’ grandparents.

Second, even if McConnell hadn’t spent eight years trying to strip presidential power from Barack Obama, having a black president does not undo centuries of racism. Even if it did–even if we believed that racism on an individual level was completely eradicated on November 4th, 2008–systemic inequality is so deeply rooted in the foundation of our country that you have to have your head buried all the way in the depths of the sand not to accept that the vestiges of slavery not only still exist, but shape entire lives.

A massive crowd showed up for the hearing today, lining up at 7am to get one of the public seats available. But according to the Guardian, Republican lawmakers were not so interested in being there. “Half the bench of lawmakers consists of Democrats, and their seats are all full. Half the bench consists of Republicans, and their seats are almost entirely empty. Which speaks volumes about how the modern conservative movement views the subject of making amends for slavery,” they write.

Those who were present got to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates destroy Mitch McConnell’s argument in person. McConnell wasn’t there (as this was a House hearing), but Coates, who wrote an iconic Atlantic article on the issue five years ago, began his testimony by addressing the Senator’s comments.

“Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell,” he said. And definitely watch the video above but in case you can’t, here’s how Coates continued:

It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders and the guard of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs. Coup d’états and convict leasing. Vagrancy laws and debt peonage. Redlining and racist G.I. bills. Poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism. We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.

Sure, slavery has ended. But its legacy persists. “It was 150 years ago. And it was right now,” says Coates.

The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share. The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.

Coates wasn’t the only person to give testimony today. Here’s Cory Booker:

Here’s economist Dr. Julianne Malveaux:

You’ve likely not had many opportunities to hear Dr. Malveaux speak before today. If that’s the case, make sure you give that video a watch. It’s incredibly powerful and informative.

Here’s Danny Glover:

Obviously, reparations are an extremely complicated issue. There’s a debate over whether individual checks or investments in things like criminal justice reform and HBCUs would be more beneficial respectful. There’s the question of figuring out who gets how much. All of those questions, though, only serve as evidence for the need for this kind of study.

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.