The debate over reparations for descendants of slaves has reached Congress with an impassioned plea from actor Danny Glover to address compensation for America’s blighted heritage of racism.
Glover, who told a House Judiciary panel that his great-grandfather was enslaved, called a national reparations policy “a moral, democratic and economic imperative”.
It was Congress’ first hearing in a decade on the topic and comes amid a growing discussion in the Democratic Party on reparations and sets up a potential standoff with Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the idea.
“This hearing is yet another important step in the long and historic struggle of African Americans to secure reparations for the damage that has been inflicted by slavery and Jim Crow,” Glover told the panel.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who drew new attention to the issue with his 2014 essay, The Case for Reparations, told the panel “it’s impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery”.
Sen Cory Booker, a presidential contender, testified that the US 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”.
But another writer, Coleman Hughes, who at times testified over boos from the audience, said black people don’t need “another apology”, but safer neighbourhoods, better schools, a less punitive criminal justice system and better healthcare.
“None of these things can be achieved through reparations for slavery,” said Mr Hughes, who says he is the descendant of blacks enslaved at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
The legislation, which would set up a bipartisan commission to study the issue, spotlights a national conversation over the legacy of slavery.
Several of the party’s presidential candidates have endorsed looking at the idea, though they have stopped short of endorsing direct payouts for African Americans.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called reparations a “serious issue” and said he expects the resolution will see a vote in the House.
Rep Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who became the sponsor of a measure retired Democratic Rep John Conyers, said to the packed hearing room, “I just simply ask: Why not and why not now?”
But Mr McConnell opposes reparations, telling reporters on Tuesday he does not want reparations for “something that happened 150 years ago”.
“We’ve tried to deal with the original sin of slavery by passing civil rights legislation,” Mr McConnell said, and electing an African American president, Barack Obama.
“It would be hard to figure out who to compensate” for slavery, the Kentucky Republican said, and added: “No one currently alive was responsible for that.”
While reparations has been moving toward the mainstream of the Democratic Party, the idea remains far from widely accepted, both among Democrats and the public at large.