Congressman on reparations: African Americans have experienced 'intergenerational trauma'

"When you look at who in this nation has wealth and power and influence and it doesn't represent you, that is a trauma in and of itself," says New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

Updated: November 21, 2021 - 8:15am

Making the case for passage of a bill to study slavery reparations proposals, Democratic lawmakers argued that African Americans have faced "intergenerational trauma" in the U.S.

"When you analyze the landscape of the country, and when you see the leaders of our corporations, the CEOs, the majority of the presidents of this country, and when you look at who in this nation has wealth and power and influence and it doesn't represent you, that is a trauma in and of itself," said New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman at a news conference with Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, lead sponsor of H.R. 40.

"The impact of 244 years of the enslavement of our ancestors, the transatlantic slave trade, the colonialism of Africa, on and on and on," he added. "This is all a collective trauma that continues to be repeated. And when George Floyd was murdered, we all got to experience that trauma together, the nation did and the world did."

Bowman said intergenerational trauma impacts African American children today. 

"It's so powerful that we now have research to support the intergenerational trauma that our people have experienced throughout American history," he said. "It is undeniable. It is time, way past time, to form a commission to study the impact of these traumas on our people."

Dr. Kenneth S. Nave from Chicago joined the Democratic lawmakers at the press conference. He argued that the traumatic experiences that African Americans experienced during slavery in the 1700s and 1800s have an effect on their relatives today.

"We are carrying these epigenetic markers in our genes and in our body," he said. "And so when you come into a certain environmental influence, this person can then begin to mimic the pathology that was suffered by their ancestors. This is no longer theory. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome; but this is no longer a theory. It's an actual fact that the trauma that has been imposed upon your ancestors will carry on into your genes."

"Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome" was written by Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary and released in 2005.

The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act sets up the commission to "address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery."

The 13 colonies were under the control of Great Britain until the U.S. gained its independence in 1776.

Lee suggested renaming the legislation. 

"Black people have never used excuses, but I think it is crucial that we have people who are addressing our issues to be informed," she said. "That is what H.R. 40 is all about: The commission to study slavery and develop reparation proposals, maybe we should say 'develop answers to the questions.'"

Lee invited Dr. Joan Kaufman of the Kennedy Krieger Institute to address the public at the news conference.

Kaufman said most of the research on "transgenerational epigenetic inheritance" has been conducted with animals but some studies have been done on humans.

"We've heard transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is when the negative effects of adversities and trauma in one generation can be passed down to affect the health and well-being of future generations; grandchildren and great grandchildren can be negatively impacted by ancestral traumas, even when they have not been directly harmed themselves," she said.

"So how do we know that trauma in one generation can affect the health and well-being of future generations?" she continued. "Most of the research to date has been done in animals, and it is very compelling. But studies in humans have also shown when ancestors were exposed to trauma, poor nutrition or toxic chemicals, it could impact the health of descendants for several generations." 

Lee said the reparations study bill currently has 194 Democratic cosponsors.

"I think that we are clearly on the move," she said. "As we stand here today, there are poster boards that depict some of the trauma that we have been experiencing. And the hanging continued into the 20th century, which was just, as some would say, the other day."

Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens, an opponent of the reparations study bill, has said it is "unfair and heartless to give Black Americans the hope that this is a reality."

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