WASHINGTON -- A growing debate about whether black Americans are entitled to reparations for wrongs suffered under slavery and decades of racial discrimination found a new forum in Congress yesterday.
After clearing their first legislative hurdle, those seeking a new federal commission to study slavery's impact on African-Americans say it may be an idea whose time has come.
"We just can't slam the door on these questions," said Representative John Conyers Jr., D-Mich. "It's a matter of healing for the country."
Mr. Conyers' remarks came as the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights cleared a bill that would create a panel to assess the lingering effects of racial discrimination -- and recommend appropriate remedies.
The idea of reparations for black Americans has been circulated since the abolition of slavery in 1865. But since 1988, when Congress awarded more than $1 billion to 60,000 Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, the proposal has gained increasing momentum, say proponents.
Mr. Conyers' legislation has won the formal endorsement of 24 members of Congress, including Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, since its introduction last November.
The bill proposes no specific form of reparation but asks only that a six-member commission appointed by Congress and the president "examine the institution of slavery" and the "subsequent . . . racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans" and determine if some compensation is merited.
Mr. Conyers sought yesterday to assuage subcommittee members' fears that the reparations bill could total up to $4 trillion. "We have not taken leave of our senses," he said. "All the co-sponsors are aware of the [federal] debt." But if the commission deems reparations are merited, they could come in the form of new federal aid for black education or health programs, he said.
This argument did not persuade Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., who voted against the measure. "I think this bill is a Pandora's box that will lead to nothing but reopening old wounds," he said. "There's no more detestable institution than slavery . . . [but] I don't think trying to monetarize that history lesson is going to provide a useful purpose."
But subcommittee Chairman Don Edwards, D-Calif., noting the president's veto of the new civil rights bill as well as the resurgence of racial bigotry throughout the country, asserted that this "Pandora's box should be opened."
"Something needs to be done to wake up America [to the fact] that something is wrong in our race relations." Mr. Edwards said.
Supporters concede that there is virtually no chance the bill can win passage this year but say that they are heartened by the progress thus far.