Can This Congress Handle Both Reparations and White Supremacy?

By Nkechi Taifa

As a lifelong D.C. resident, I’ve learned not to put too much faith in the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate and the U.S. Supreme Court. But I have worked as part of the grassroots as well as the grasstops, so I know that change is possible. President Biden’s first 100 days are approaching and Black pundits and activists, including this writer, will have a lot to say in a virtual national Report Card forum on April 29.

Happily, however, there are current, direct black linings in the white, nebulous clouds surrounding both chambers of Congress.

Shortly before midnight on April 14, the House Judiciary Committee passed H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, along an expected 25–17 party line vote. This first committee vote ever on this proposal — which would fund a commission to explore reparations for Black folk — is a significant victory for U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). Jackson Lee is following in the powerful footsteps of the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), who pioneered the legislation over three decades ago, after conferring with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). I am proud to be a founding member of N’COBRA and proud to have been part of that collaboration. Also on April 14, the House Oversight Committee passed H.R. 51, along party lines. This bill would make Washington, D.C. the 51st state.

Meanwhile recently in the Senate, Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, testified that white supremacy is a major problem in America.

These current Congressional actions prove that, Republican Party to the contrary, white denial cannot last forever.

There is great irony in the FBI championing the fight against white supremacy. Indeed, we didn’t know how deep our enemies’ bench was until we found out in the 1970s about the Bureau’s counter-intelligence program — COINTELPRO — designed to disrupt and destroy Black movements in America. Wray’s recent testimony on Capitol Hill, therefore, gives cause for cautious optimism.

It was the noise of the streets that created this new atmosphere on Capitol Hill — first the noise of millions of Black Lives Matter protestors; then the counter-noise of white terrorists, who attempted an insurrection on Jan. 6. Other sounds that have added to the current climate include the dying groans of George Floyd. The trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who lynched Floyd on-camera, has become a nationally televised part of our daily routine of trauma porn, along with police who tragically can’t seem to tell the difference between a taser and a gun. The echoes of all these angry sounds provide fodder for those who want to hear.

With a Democratic president, Black History Month and the April 4 King assassination observances done and the previously postponed Summer Olympics on its way, the Black temperature has temporarily lowered (at least outside Minneapolis), while the temperature in Washington is about to rise.

These protracted struggles — for reparations and D.C. Statehood and against naked and institutional white supremacy — I have fought my entire life. My book, “Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice,” chronicles my life, from late 1960s Black Power activism through conferring with White House officials about criminal justice reform and clemency during the Obama era. I have loved and lived in the Black nationalist margins and in the briefcased mainstream.

So now as an outsider who still cherishes her insider perspective, I can say with some authority that this is definitely the time for Black people to put steady pressure on the Congressional Black Caucus, including Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), to truly represent those who are no longer on this plane as well as those not yet born. And as Congress grapples with legislative responses to today’s movements, we want to make sure they acknowledge gross abuses from the past so as not to replicate them in the present.

We don’t know whether a long, hot summer will be on the horizon. There is still a pandemic to conquer, a historical Black distrust of government vaccines, law enforcement madness and the ongoing threat of open and organized white supremacy. Unfortunately, the temperature will be a little warmer when Chauvin’s case goes to the jury and when the reparations bill reaches the House floor, which means that risks of more than one type may dangerously swirl in the hot air.

Nkechi Taifa is a civil/human rights attorney and President of The Taifa Group, LLC.

Movement Attorney, Author of BlackPowerBlackLawyer.com; TheTaifaGroup.com; NkechiTaifa.org; @Nkechi_Taifa; Convener of JusticeRoundtable.org; @justiceroundtab