Bills to pay reparations for slavery stir tough feelings
Should Oregonians pay thousands each year in reparations to descendants of enslaved people?
That's the question Oregon lawmakers take up Wednesday morning, March 10, as they discuss two senate bills requiring the state to study paying reparations to African American Oregonians who can trace their ancestry to slavery.
Former state Rep. Tiffiny K. Mitchell of Astoria says yes, we should. A handful of others who submitted early testimony on the two bills say absolutely not.
"I feel like this is truly the right thing for Oregon to do in order to right the wrongs of the past," said Mitchell, a Democrat who asked that the bills be introduced this session. "It's about making things right."
Senate Bills 618 and 619 establish a state reparation study framework. The study should be completed by September 2022. The work includes requiring people to show that they are descended from an enslaved person. If approved, the proposed bills would provide African American Oregonians $123,000 annually for life.
A companion measure, Senate Joint Memorial 4, also asks the U.S. Congress to adopt national legislation on reparations for African Americans.
All three measures will be part of a public hearing at 8 a.m. before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Implementation. You can watch the meeting at olis.oregonlegislature.gov/liz/2021R1/Committees/SJD110/Overview.
Proposals to pay reparations to descendants of slaves have been discussed nationally for several years. In Congress, 2019's H.R. 40 would establish a commission to study possible reparations. The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Shirley Jackson-Lee of Texas, focuses on the nearly 4 million Africans who were enslaved in the United States between 1619 and 1865.
Similar legislation has been considered in California, New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania.
In the late 1980s, the federal government paid reparations to about 80,000 surviving Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II. The $1.6 billion reparation legislation provided a one-time payment of about $20,000 to each survivor. Neary 112,000 Japanese Americans, including thousands of Oregonians, were held in the camps and lost their property and their livelihoods.
Acknowledging past harm
Democrat Mitchell served in the Oregon House for one term, from 2019 to 2021. She faced the wrath of Clatsop County's timber industry after her vote to approve controversial greenhouse gas reduction legislation and decided against re-election.
Mitchell said the massive public protests of 2020 following the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led her to "really dig into some issues that were important to learn more about, and reparations were one of them." She approached state Sens. Lew Frederick of Portland and James Manning Jr. of Lane County, who are Black, about introducing the reparations legislation.
Wednesday's hearing is the first for both bills. So far, they've attracted attention of people on both sides of the issue who submitted early written testimony.
George Hazelton of Beaverton told the committee that he opposed the idea of reparations because "there is not one former slave alive today to pay reparations to, so the issue is moot."
Kelly Yzaguirre of Bend told the committee taxpayers "should not have to pay for the crimes of strangers based on my skin color. This is completely racist and backwards ideology."
Mindy Cope, a Sunriver small-business owner, said she wasn't opposed to reparations, but she was concerned the issue could further divide Black Oregonians. "I am not opposed to reparations, in fact the reparations, or rather 'atonement' payment, should be to the American Descendants of Slavery rather than African descendants of slavery," she told the committee. "There is a big difference. Whomever is involved with passing this bill also needs to think about the divide that will be created for Black Oregonians who are not ADOS — don't you think this will further create a divide amongst Oregonians who are black that are not ADOS?"
Kelly Simmons of Portland said that while she supported the legislation, it could be difficult to calculate true reparations for victims who were enslaved. "The amount of money that we as American citizens owe Black Americans as result of our racist systems over these hundreds of years is immeasurable, but clearly very high."
Stacey Boatright, representing the Showing Up for Racial Justice St. Johns chapter, told the committee, "Our government must not only acknowledge the past and present harms against the Black community in our state, it must actually deliver reparative justice," she said. "African Americans in Oregon have never been compensated for the brutal and inhumane treatment they have endured throughout history and continue to suffer from today."
Mitchell agreed that discussing possible reparations was difficult, but necessary. "I would ask Oregonians who oppose the idea to open their hearts and minds to the myriad of critical work that has been done around the topic of reparations," Mitchell said.
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