Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, who is Black and a descendant of slaves, is blasting a push by Democrats to create a commission that would explore reparations for African Americans.
“Reparations are not the way to right our country’s wrong,” the conservative Republican said during a hearing Wednesday in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. He is a member of that panel.
“It is impractical and a nonstarter for the United States government to pay reparations,” he said. “It is also unfair and heartless to give Black Americans the hope that this is a reality.”
Owens also argued that talk about reparations tends to paint Blacks as somehow inferior and in need of extra help.
“The reality is that Black American history is not one of a hapless, hopeless race oppressed by a more powerful white race,” he said. Instead, it is “a history of millions of middle and wealthy class Black Americans throughout the early 20th century achieving the American dream.”
But he said that history of success “has been stolen,” in part by talk of reparations and need for extra help for Blacks. He also said reparations equates to “redistribution of wealth, or socialism.”
The subcommittee was discussing H.R. 40 to create the commission to explore reparations, legislation first pushed by the late Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1989. It has started to get more attention during the past year amid Black Lives Matters marches, and was recently reintroduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
“I think if people begin to associate this legislation with what happened to the descendants of enslaved Africans as a human rights violation, the sordid past that violated the human rights of all of us who are descendants of enslaved Africans, I think that we can find common ground to pass this legislation,” Jackson Lee said, according to Afro News.
Owens talked about growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s and ’60s in “the days of the KKK, Jim Crow, segregation” — but said Blacks of that era still led the country in the growth of its middle class.
He remembered that “we believed and taught the love of God, country, and family, and respect for women and authority. We believed in commanding respect through meritocracy, not just in sports and entertainment, but in every discipline.”
Owens said that he learned, “You can’t demand or beg for respect. You can only command respect through meritocracy.”
He said he believes America is making progress, and reparations are not needed.
“I entered the NFL in 1973 at a time there were no Black quarterbacks, Black centers or Black middle linebackers. They were ‘white thinking men positions.’ Forty years later, our nation has elected a Black American as president and a Black female as vice president. It’s called progress,” Owens said.
He reiterated that “slavery was and still is evil,” but said America “purged the stain from our nation’s soul at the cost of 600,000 American lives” in the Civil War.
Owens also said in a Tweet on Wednesday, “Reparations are not about helping the black community, it’s about getting votes. Want to help the black community(& everyone else)? Let us get back to work, let our kids go back to school, let our parents decide which school, and get planned parenthood out of our inner cities!”
Two years ago, Owens as a private citizen testified before the same committee on the same topic. He said then, “I do not believe in reparation, because what reparation does, it points to a certain race, a certain color and ... points to it as evil and points the other race — my race — as one that has not only becomes racist but ... also beggars.”
H.R. 40 doesn’t place a specific monetary value on reparations, reported Afro News, but puts a focus on investigating and presenting facts about slavery, racial healing and transformation.
Advocates say reparations could help close inequities that Blacks face.
“Reparations for slavery is … very much about the present day and how most of our inequities today are connected to the legacy of slavery when thinking about how racism has harmed the black community,” Dreisen Heath, an assistant researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch who also spoke at Wednesday’s hearing, told The Hill.