WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson was booed multiple times during a hearing on slave reparations and racial injustice on Wednesday when he said such repayments would "almost certainly be unconstitutional on their face" and that "monetary reparations from current taxpayers for the sins of Americans for many years ago" would be unjust.
"Let me finish," Johnson, R-Shreveport, said, breaking up his prepared opening remarks in response to the jeers. "Listen, wait a minute."
He went on to say that he and his wife early in their married life took in a 14-year-old African American boy, now an adult, and consider him a part of their family.
"I personally know the challenges he has faced early in his life. I've walked with him through discrimination that he's had to endure over the years and the hurdles he faced," the Louisiana lawmaker said.
Johnson, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, is the ranking member on the Democratic-controlled subcommittee that called the hearing and the only member of Louisiana's delegation on it.
Featured guests at the hearing included actor and activist Danny Glover, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, former NFL player Burgess Owens and others from both sides of the debate over whether African Americans should receive compensation for the country's history of slavery and discrimination.
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In his opening statement, former state lawmakers Johnson cited President Barack Obama and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's opposition to reparations.
"There's no doubt that prejudice exists in our society. It exists in communities and many different races and types of people, and it's not reserved to just one race or class against another," Johnson said. "All of that is despicable and every single instance un-American."
The at-times heated hearing was held to mark Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. It came one day after U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, rejected the idea of reparations.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea," McConnell said during a news conference, going on to cite Obama's election as the first black president in 2008 as an example of the country's progress.
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“We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We've elected an African American president,” he said. “I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it."
The legislation considered in Wednesday's House subcommittee hearing aims to create a 13-member commission to study ways to compensate people who are descendants of slaves and consider issuing a national apology for the country's history of slavery. The subcommittee took no vote after the nearly 3 ½-hour hearing that was often interrupted with cheers and jeers from the crowd, despite calls from leaders to maintain decorum.
“(The bill) is intended to begin a national conversation about how to confront the brutal mistreatment of African-Americans during chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the enduring structural racism that remains endemic to our society today," Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-New York, said after the hearing. “Even long after slavery was abolished, segregation and subjugation of African Americans was a defining part of this nation’s policies that shaped its values and its institutions."
During the hearing, Johnson disclosed that he and his wife, Kelly, "took custody" of a black teenager named Michael when they were newlyweds.
"Many of my colleagues in this committee may not be aware, in addition to our four children at home, my wife and I have a much older son who happens to be African American," he said. "We took custody of Michael and made him part of our family 22 years ago when we were just newlyweds and Michael just 14 and out on the streets and on a dangerous path."
Michael is not mentioned in Johnson's official biographies that name his four younger children. Johnson's spokeswoman Ainsley Holyfield declined to elaborate on their relationship.
"The congressman will not be commenting further than what was said today in committee out of respect for Michael, his privacy and their relationship," she said.
Johnson said he asked Michael, who turns 36 next week and is a father of four, for his thoughts about reparations over the weekend. He said he explained "in a thoughtful way" that he opposes the idea.