Despite racial reckoning, state efforts stall on reparations

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Oregon state Sen. Lew Frederick poses on the Oregon Senate floor April 15, 2021, in Salem, Ore. While some cities are moving ahead, the efforts have largely stalled in the states. Frederick said local and state efforts, if they gain more traction, can help build support, eventually, for reparations on the federal level. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky)

LOUISVILLE – During last summer’s reckoning over racial injustice, decades-long debates about whether to offer reparations to the descendants of slaves in the U.S. finally seemed to be gaining momentum.

State lawmakers in California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Oregon — where Democrats control the legislatures — introduced or hoped to revive proposals to study the possibility. It turns out the wait for reparations will continue.

The state efforts have mostly stalled, raising questions about whether they can win enough support to succeed on a wide scale. California is the only state to approve a commission to study reparations statewide and how they might work.

“We need a federal reparations bill, but I don’t know when we’ll get there," said Maryland state Del. Wanika Fisher, a Democrat who introduced legislation there to create a reparations task force. "Hopefully we will ... but I think states should be accountable.”

Her bill received a committee hearing but never made it any further during this year's legislative session, which ended earlier this month. It's similar in the other states. Bills that would study the possibility of statewide reparations in New Jersey, New York and Oregon have been parked in legislative committees.

That mirrors the outlook in Congress. A committee in the U.S. House, which is controlled by Democrats, advanced a decades-old bill that would establish a reparations commission, but its prospects appear dim in the evenly divided Senate where it's unlikely to generate enough support to overcome a filibuster.

“A lot of our legislation and the things we work on are all Band-Aids on the issue of institutional racism, class inequality and the host of other issues that stem from that,” said Fisher, who plans to reintroduce her bill next year. “But we’ve never fully tackled what’s at the heart, what’s the cancer, what’s the disease?”

The lack of progress reflects the nation's conflicting views on whether reparations to atone for slavery are necessary. A 2019 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that the vast majority of Black Americans — 74% — favored reparations, but less than a fifth of white Americans did.