Professor Robert Patterson Discusses H.R.40 Bill, Offers Suggestions for Reparations

Robert Patterson delivers keynote at the Boys and Men of Color Education Summit

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One of the policies Congress put forth to improve the lives of Black Americans is the H.R.40 bill, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. Robert Patterson, a professor in the Department of African American Studies whose research focuses on Black cultural production, racial politics and the legacies of slavery in the United States, explains why this bill is a positive step toward the creation of a more equitable society. 

About the H.R.40 Bill

The H.R.40 bill was initially proposed by Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee in 2019, but has gained new momentum due to the continued protests in the fight for Black lives. If passed, the committee established by the bill will examine the effects of slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present and will make recommendations to rectify existing disparities in our society. 

Patterson, whose work centers around the history of racial discrimination and reparations for that history, says that H.R.40 is an entry point to making real change in America. 

“The frustrations and hesitations around this bill are valid – there are already so many commissions that exist that simply produce reports but do not result in any actionable items, all while the disparities in wealth, health and education become wider,” Patterson says. “However, what I like about H.R.40 is that it is not trying to prove whether these issues exist, but rather it is saying that these issues do exist and it is attempting to spell out how they exist in various social institutions and rectify those inequalities and inequities.”

Patterson explains that one example of reparations that the committee could implement would be to use archival documentation to determine which families were victims of redlining and give them financial compensation. He continued that these same archives could also be used to determine where Black individuals were excluded in other areas like schools, jobs or access to neighborhoods. 

But Patterson also says that reparations should not be given solely to Black individuals, but should also be allocated towards Black communities. 

“We know that de jure segregation complemented de facto segregation,” he says. “Hospitals, schools and grocery stores were underfunded as a result of racist policies, so these institutions then underperformed, which ultimately led to Black people who lived in these areas having almost every facet of their lives adversely impacted. 

“That is why it is important that the government invests in communities that have food deserts—which typically also have education, healthcare, employment, and housing droughts too—to unburden Black communities and increase their overall access to goods, as well as their income and wealth outcomes,” he continues. 

These solutions are some of the many forms that the reparations proposed by the H.R.40 bill committee could take. But amends of some form must be made to create not only an equal, but equitable society. 

Equality versus Equity 

Patterson says one of the key issues he addresses in his in-progress book Black Equity, Black Equality: Reparation and Black Communities is the distinction between equity and equality. 

There are two models that are often discussed around reparations for Black individuals in America, one is the equity model, and one is the equality model or fairness model. The problem with the equality model and this idea of fairness is that it presupposes equal starting points or equal access to those starting points, which Black individuals have never had in the United States.

“Black people have never had their fair share in society and they want to make up for that through reparations,” says Patterson. “From there, issues of access, opportunity, and outcome can be addressed. It is important to note that even when Black people have equal access in healthcare, for example, their outcomes might still lag behind due to the interpersonal nature of racism that might not allow them to receive the proper treatment they deserve.”

Patterson says that it is important for more routine interactions to occur to fix interpersonal racism, but what is more crucial is for there to be a drastic change in overall representation and presence of Black people across institutions in the United States.

“Racism is so embedded and reinforced through the media that when white people interact with Black people who do not fit into their preconceived notion about how Black people should think or act, white people then think about those black people as an exception,” says Patterson. “This does not fundamentally change how they’ve categorized or stereotyped Black people. So in addition an increase in interpersonal interactions, more ranges of representation in the media and an increased presence of Black people across institutions seem necessary.”

He adds that this does not only include more accurate representation and reflection of Black experiences, but also must incorporate Black contributions, foundations and epistemologies, in addition to holding elections and appointing people to positions that are reflective of the demographics of this country, but also who are trained in anti-racist behaviors. 

One of the biggest challenges in this work is that the majority of racist ideas and policies are covert rather than overt. Patterson has taught several courses on the importance of learning the unconscious, even unintentional nature of racism to Georgetown students. 

“It is also paramount that instances of racism, anti-Blackness, white supremacy and white privilege are acknowledged at each point when they arise,” Patterson continues. “I am excited for what the H.R.40 commission will be able to enact to combat these issues if it passes in the next Congress.” 

About Patterson

Patterson served as the inaugural chair of the African American Studies Department from 2016-2019. He is the author of Destructive Desires: Rhythm and Blues Culture and the Politics of Racial Equality (Rutgers University Press, 2019) and Exodus Politics: Civil Rights and Leadership in African American Literature and Culture (UVA Press, 2013). Patterson is also co-editor of The Psychic Hold of Slavery: Legacies in American Expressive Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2016) and editor of the Black Cultural Production After Civil Rights (University of Illinois Press, 2019). 

The professor has worked with governmental agencies, school systems and other organizations to develop solutions that increase diversity, cultivate inclusion and provide equity of access and outcomes. Patterson has collaborated with the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to endow the Robert J. Patterson Scholarship Fund, which supports residents of Hartford, CT, who intend to pursue an undergraduate degree in African American Studies, social justice, the arts or the humanities.

-by Shelby Roller (G’19)