Why Utah Rep. Burgess Owens opposes reparations as the House takes a first step toward slavery compensation

The bill would create a commission to develop a reparation plan and consider a national apology.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Burgess Owens on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. The Utah congressman opposes reparations for slavery.

Should the federal government pay reparations to the descendants of slaves?

The debate has persisted for decades, often in academic circles or during political campaigns.

Late Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee took the first-ever vote on creating a commission to study reparations, passing a bill on a party-line vote after hours of debate. This step, on a measure that has been before Congress for more than 30 years, was propelled by last summer’s social justice protests, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

One of the most prominent critics was Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens, a Black man who often talks about growing up in the segregated South.

Here’s a look at the goals of this legislation, the tough political road it faces, and why Owens opposes it.

What would the bill do?

The measure would create a commission. Among the panel’s charges would be to develop a plan to offer reparations to African Americans and a recommendation on how the nation could formally apologize for slavery and the effects of racial discrimination.

It would have 13 members, three selected by the president, three by the House speaker, one by the Senate pro tem, and six from civic groups.

These commissioners would draft a report that would document slavery in America from 1619 through 1865, including the role of states and the federal government. It also would be charged with examining racial discrimination up to the present day, including in the areas of housing, education and financial practices.

Once completed, the commission would seek to publicize its findings, including its recommendations on reparations, an apology, and potential changes to existing laws.

The panel would have a year to complete this work, including devising a plan of who would get the reparations and a formula to determine how much these payments would be.

This is far from a new idea, having first been introduced by then-Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1989, but it has never come up for a vote in committee. Wednesday’s action paves the way for the bill to be debated before the full House.

What does President Joe Biden say?

The House debate would be fierce. And even if it passed, this bill would face a tough time getting through an evenly divided Senate.

If it does, the president would sign it.

Biden met with the Congressional Black Caucus this week and among the topics discussed was reparations.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who is the sponsor of the bill, told reporters, “We have heard from not only the president, but the White House and his team, that he is committed to this concept.”

Back in February, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, “We’d certainly support a study, but we’ll see what happens through the legislative process.”

What is Rep. Burgess Owens’ position?

Owens was among the first members of the House Judiciary Committee to speak during Wednesday’s debate. He said “slavery was and still is an evil,” but he considers the idea of reparations to be an insult to Black people.

“Reparations is divisive. It speaks to the fact that we are a helpless, hopeless race that never did anything but wait for white people to show up and help us,” Owens said. “It’s a falsehood. It is demeaning to my parents’ generation. That is one of the greatest generations in the history of the country.”

Owens grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., in the 1950s and ’60s. He experienced segregation. He said he was taught to fight for success.

“We believed in commanding respect, not begging or asking for it,” he said, describing the rise of a Black middle class. “I grew up in that middle class in the ’50s. Believe me, they were not sitting back waiting for white people to give them a break. They were making it.”

He also described the idea of reparations as unfair to white people.

“By the way, reparations, where you take people’s money that they’ve earned is punishment. It’s theft. It’s judgment. It’s saying that because of your skin color, you owe me,” he said. “That is not the American way. We’re not racist people. This American country is based on meritocracy.”

Owens previously has equated reparations to a redistribution of wealth, or “socialism.” And he has criticized Democrats for pushing reparations as a way to get votes.

On Wednesday, he criticized Democrats broadly for pushing a racial agenda that has been divisive and for failed leadership in predominantly Black cities.

“The greatest gift that we had with President [Barack] Obama was our American people saying, ‘Finally, we can close this chapter. Finally, we can move forward,’” Owens said. “And what have we done since? That has divided us even more.”

He named cities such as Chicago, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., where a 2014 police shooting of Black man sparked unrest.

“Every place Democrats oversee a Black community is misery, and we’re going to blame white people? How about an ideology?” he said. “How about we take ownership? Educate our young people again, give them job opportunities again.”

What does the bill’s sponsor say?

Jackson Lee and supporters of reparations say the nation has never reckoned with slavery and the great impacts it has had — and still has — on Black people. She said the very debate in the House is part of a process of healing.

“Thank you for understanding the pain in which this body of people have experienced,” she told her colleagues, before holding up a pocket Constitution noting the document counted Black people as worth only three-fifths of a person at its drafting.

She drew a line from slavery to Jim Crow, from segregation to lynchings. She said the wealth gap between Blacks and whites remains as large as it was in the 1960s and she raised the specter of police violence, mentioning the ongoing murder trial for the officer accused of killing Floyd.

She also sought to fight off critics who rail against the idea of the government providing money to people who have not experienced slavery themselves.

“Though critics have argued that the idea of reparations is unworkable politically or financially, their focus on money misses the point,” she said. “The goal of this historical commission and its investigation is to bring American society to the new reckoning with how our past affects the current conditions of African Americans.”

She said reparations are more than direct financial payments. “It focuses on remedies that can be created in many forms necessary to equitably address the many kinds of injuries sustained from the chattel slavery and its continued vestiges.”