Bowman co-sponsors bill that seeks $14 trillion in slavery reparations for Black Americans

January 16, 2024


State-sanctioned slavery existed in what became the United States for 246 years. Ten of the nation’s first 12 presidents enslaved Black people, including one who engaged in slave trading from the Oval Office.

Enslaved people — both in the North and the South — helped build our nation and were a foundation of the 18th and 19th century economies. The Hudson Valley’s Philipse family, with a mansion in Yonkers and a mill up the river at Philipsburg Manor, made a portion of their fortune through the slave trade.

New York’s gradual emancipation in 1799 subjected current slaves to lifelong bondage but granted freedom to those born after 1799 by 1827. National emancipation came in 1865, but freedom for the former slaves did not bring prosperity or the rights enjoyed by other Americans.

U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-Yonkers, said it’s time for the federal government to finally acknowledge the deep, lasting harms suffered by African Americans. He backs federal legislation that would create a $14 trillion reparations program to aid the descendants of enslaved Black people and people of African descent.

To put the price-tag in perspective, the federal government spent about $7 trillion in 2020, about 28% of the nation’s $25 trillion ecomomy.

There are about 42 million African Americans in the United States, representing 12% of our nation’s population, according to the 2020 census. That means the proposed reparations program could deliver roughly $333,000 per person. Bowman said it could be paid over decades.

“Who says the $14 trillion needs to be paid out in one shot?” said Bowman. “It might be possible for it to be paid out over 5 or 10 or 20 years. You could take that $333,000 and break it up into monthly checks over X amount of time. There are creative ways to do the right thing and do what needs to be done.”

For Bowman, the reparations discussion encompasses a broad look at racial inequities across American society, including housing, mass incarceration, higher education and wealth inequality.

The bill co-sponsored by Bowman, which was introduced in 2023, comes 35 years after a bill to set up a federal commission to study reparations was first introduced. That bill remains pending and was reintroduced again this year as well. 

Bowman’s bill, meanwhile, lacks a Senate sponsor, which means it won’t advance, even if it passes the U.S. House.

A new reckoning with slavery

The call for federal reparations is part of our country’s reckoning with slavery, a reckoning that has found a foothold at historic sites at Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers and Philipsburgh Manor in Sleepy Hollow.

The house resolution notes that scholars have estimated that the U.S. benefited from 222 million hours of forced labor from 1619 to 1865. That’s equal to $97 trillion in today’s dollars, the bill states.

“There were 246 years of free labor that produced trillions or hundreds of trillions of dollars for the U.S. economy,” said Bowman. “The economy wouldn’t exist in the way it does today if slavery hadn’t built it.”

Bowman was among nine original sponsors of House Resolution 414 in 2023, which, in a gripping narrative, details the history of enslavement in America, and the vestiges of slavery that the sponsors say continue to inflict harm on Black Americans.

The bill calls for policies that would accompany the monetary awards: free college education at the nation’s 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, funding for the National Publishers Association and National Association of Black Broadcasters, and restoration of voting rights for persons currently or previously incarcerated.

“I think people incarcerated should be able to vote,” said Bowman. “And I definitely think that when they come out, they should automatically be enfranchised.”

Reparations on the table

The bill is the latest attempt by Black representatives to promote reparations. Bowman is also a current co-sponsor of House Resolution 40, first introduced in 1989, which would set up a commission to study reparations.

While the federal bill to create a commission has yet to pass, the states of New York and California have authorized such studies, with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signing a bill to launch a panel in December.

In 2023, the city of Evanston, Illinois approved a reparations program to provide $10 million over a decade through $25,000 housing assistance grants to Black residents for down payments, repairs or mortgage payments to atone for racist housing polices in the past. Funding comes from taxes on cannabis and the sales of homes costing more than $1 million.

The federal government set a precedent for paying reparations in 1988, providing recompense to 82,000 Japanese Americans who were survivors of internment during World War II. That program was on a much smaller scale than contemplated by Bowman’s bill, with $20,000 paid to each survivor.

Hudson Valley split on reparations

There’s a split among Hudson Valley Democrats on HR 414. Supporting the bill are Bowman and former Bedford Supervisor MaryAnn Carr. She is challenging former Rep. Mondaire Jones for the Democratic nomination in the neighboring 17th District, now represented by Rep. Mike Lawler, R-Pearl River.

Opposing HR 414 are Jones and Westchester County Executive George Latimer, D-Rye, looking to oust Bowman. Instead, Latimer and Jones back House Resolution 40, which calls for a reparations commission, and an apology from the federal government for 246 years of state-sanctioned chattel slavery.

“The issue of reparations deserves serious consideration and dialogue, which is why I support HR 40,” Latimer said. “But HR 414 is a one-house bill with no chance of passage, so it is clearly a political statement more than anything else,”

While Jones opposes Bowman’s reparations bill, he backs conducting a federal study into the impacts of slavery.

“I recognize that the impacts of slavery and subsequent state-sponsored discrimination in the United States are still being felt today, from the vast racial wealth gap to residential segregation and unequal educational opportunities across public schools,” he said. “As Congress looks to level the playing field for all Americans, regardless of race, it is important to study these impacts more closely.”

Rep. Lawler, meanwhile, said that it would be wrong to burden 21st century taxpayers with paying for the abhorrent system of slavery that was abolished in the 19th century.

“Congressman Lawler strongly opposes any law that would force today’s American taxpayers to pay reparations for slavery that ended 160 years ago – and nearly 200 years ago in New York State,” said Lawler campaign spokesman Chris Russell. “Aside from the $14-trillion dollar price tag requiring massive tax or debt increases, the congressman believes such a law would only lead to a greater racial divide and resentment at a time when we need to come together as a nation.”

How to pay for reparations

Bowman maintains the federal government has the wherewithal to pay the tab. He cited the space race in the 1960s and 1970s as well the recent federal response to COVID as examples of how the federal government can respond.

“When COVID was destroying us, we invested in the American people in a way that kept the economy afloat,” said Bowman. “The government can invest the same way in reparations without raising taxes on anyone.”

He said the government stepped up in the crisis, spending an estimated $1.6 trillion in 2020, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by USAFacts. That year, the federal government took in $3.6 trillion in revenue yet spent $6.6 trillion, adding $3 trillion to the burgeoning federal deficit.

“Where did the money come from?” Bowman said. “We spent it into existence.”

John Buhl at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said the impact of reparations of this magnitude would depend on the financing of the borrowing package, the distribution timetable, as well as possible spending offsets. He noted that reducing poverty among Black Americans would lower demand for federal programs while “addressing longstanding moral issues.”

“So it certainly can be done, there are just side effects we would need to prepare for,” Buhl said.

Bowman also said that such investments in the Black community could spell dividends for the economy, as well.

He noted that the $14-trillion price-tag in the bill may be adjusted upward to $16 trillion to account for inflation that will occur before the bill finally passes.

“Let’s say the investment of $16 trillion will yield $100 trillion on the back end,” Bowman said. “It’s just like when you invest in child care. Every dollar you invest in child care yields $14 on the back end.”