Episcopalians testify in support of Bill H.R. 40 in House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Juneteenth

June 20, 2019

[Episcopal News Service] The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing June 19 on Bill H.R. 40, introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), which calls for the creation of Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans.

Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and Katrina Browne, producer of the documentary “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” and consultant for The Episcopal Church as part of its Becoming Beloved Community racial justice and healing initiatives. Also on their panel were actor Danny Glover, author Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Between the World and Me”), Columbia University undergraduate Coleman Hughes and former NFL player and author Burgess Owens. The hearing took place on Juneteenth, which commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas in 1865.

Sutton was the only religious leader invited to testify. Last month the Diocese of Maryland unanimously passed a resolution on racial reconciliation affirming a pastoral letter from the bishop to the diocese on what reparations really means (repairing the breach) and how the diocese might move forward together in building a better world out of the wreckage of the past through programs and initiatives.

Sutton and Browne talked about the soul, and the importance of reconciliation, truth telling and healing for the souls of all Americans. Sutton noted that he often asked, “What do black people want?” His question is, “What do you want? If you are happy with the state of race relations in America, do nothing. If you are not happy, support the establishment of this commission for discussion and study.” Browne’s closing words were featured as the New York Times quote of the day today: “It is good for the soul of a person, a people and of a nation to set things right.”

Other testimony focused on what were named as prejudicial government actions that have had deleterious effects on the well-being of the African American community. Such practices as redlining, predatory lending, and mass incarceration were mentioned by the witnesses as demonstrating the modern oppression of African Americans. All of these issues, according to Coates, have to do with “the codification of black people as inferior” from the foundation of our nation.

Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton greets Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pennsylvania) in the subcommittee’s hearing room. Photo: Carrie Graves

Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pennsylvania) and Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pennsylvania), who are not co-sponsors of the bill, cited their work on predatory lending and environmental injustice as further recognition of societal injustice towards African Americans. Dean quoted admissions from Wells Fargo bank on pushing sub-prime lending in black church communities. Hughes and Coleman argued that reparations victimize African Americans, condescends to them and implies that they do not have the power to be self-made people.

Other discussion centered on knowing the nation’s history and its importance in guiding future action. Hughes argued that U.S. history resides in plain sight. Coates wondered, then, “Why do we have statues [confederate statues] in the Capitol? Why is there a flag flying in Mississippi?” Danny Glover quoted James Baldwin in saying, If we can’t tell ourselves the truth about the past we become trapped in it.

The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations provided support to Sutton and Browne before, during and after their testimonies. “Our work is to represent official Episcopal Church policies voted on and passed by General Convention or Executive Council, but our work is also to meet people where they are and to invite people into civil discourse by helping the Church participate in our common life,” said Director Rebecca Linder Blachly.

The Episcopal Church has a recent history of working to acknowledge the past and to discern how it can move forward as a people to repair the breach and heal a broken and divided society. Subcommittee Chair Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee), in introducing Browne, thanked The Episcopal Church for being ahead of Congress in passing an apology in 2006 (He introduced an apology bill, H.R. 194, in 2009 and it passed).

General Convention has passed resolutions 2006-C011 Support Legislation for Reparations for Slavery, 2006-A127 Endorse Restorative Justice and Anti-Racism, and 2006-A123 Study Economic Benefits Derived from Slavery, 2009-A144 Reaffirm a Resolution on Truth, Reconciliation and Restorative Justice (2006-A127) and 2009-A142 Recommit the Church to Anti-Racism and Request Annual Diocesan Reports.

Bill H.R. 40 asks that the United States government do the same. “H.R. 40 calls for the establishment of a commission,” said by Rep. Karen Bass (D-California). “It does not call for checks. To call for money trivializes reparations. Conversation is necessary and it begins with a commission.”

Economics, however, were not left out of the discussion. Economist Julianne Malveaux closed her testimony by asking that any future legislation with economic implications be audited for racial justice.

Full coverage of yesterday’s testimony can be found here.

— Carrie Graves is the director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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