President Joe Biden backs studying whether reparations should be paid to descendants of slaves, the White House said Wednesday, as House Democrats held a hearing on a bill that would establish a panel to study the issue.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington that Biden would "certainly support a study on reparations" while also understanding "we don't don’t need a study to take action, right now, on systemic racism."
The Democrat doesn't necessarily back paying reparations, Psaki added. "We’ll see what happens through the legislative process," she said.
The briefing took place as lawmakers held a hearing on H.R. 40, which would "establish a commission to study and develop Reparation proposals for African-Americans as a result" of slavery and "the lingering negative effects of the institution of slavery."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the bill's author, told the hearing that her legislation has nearly 170 cosponsors. Legislation requires 218 votes to pass in the House. No Republicans have backed the bill so far, and it's unlikely to pass the Senate, which has 50 GOP members.
Lee said she feels Americans require reparations "to restore natural balance and unity" and to narrow "the wealth gap."
She also said federal data show black Americans have contracted COVID-19 at higher rates than white people and are also more likely to be hospitalized and die from the illness.
Witnesses who support the bill included Tendayi Achiume, a professor at the UCLA's School of Law who described herself as an expert on racism. Achiume said commissions like the one proposed by the bill "are well-positioned to tailor recommendations to the specific legal contexts which sustain racial inequality."
"Reparations for slavery are an integral part of fulfilling the international legal mandate to eliminate racial discrimination. The United States is not exempt from these responsibilities. And H.R. 40 would represent important progress in fulfilling its obligations under international law," she said.
Others said they opposed the proposed legislation, including Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah).
"It is impractical and a nonstarter for the United States government to pay reparations. It is also unfair and heartless to give Black Americans the hope that this is the reality," said Owens, whose great-great-grandfather arrived in the U.S. on a slave ship.
"The reality is that Black American history is not one of a hapless, hopeless race oppressed by a more powerful white race. It is instead a history of millions of middle- and wealthy-class Black Americans throughout the early 20th century achieving their American dream. We are discussing this morning the theory of reparation; it is nothing new. It's been tried over the last 100 years, resulting in the misery and death of 100 million men, women and children. It's called redistribution of wealth, or socialism."