Skip to main content

Rep. Barbara Lee discusses racial inequality and the study of reparations at annual Higginbotham lecture

October 31, 2016

Congresswoman Barbara Lee delivered the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Penn Department of Africana Studies and held at Penn Law, on the successes of the Obama administration and the case for reparations.

By Maria Biery C’18

On October 25, Congresswoman Barbara Lee delivered the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Penn Department of Africana Studies and held at Penn Law, on the successes of the Obama administration and the case for reparations.

Each year, the lecture — named in honor of Judge Higginbotham, who served as Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit — brings to the university a distinguished scholar or public servant whose work focuses on issues in the African-American community of either historical or contemporary interest in the areas of history, social justice, or law. 

“While we have made progress, our work to overcome these systemic and structural barriers that are truly endemic in our institutions — it’s not over yet,” remarked Lee. “We have a lot of work to do.”

According to Lee, that progress includes Obama administration accomplishments such as the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the signing of the Iran Nuclear Deal, the ability to now travel and trade with Cuba, and the increased attention to Africa.

Lee also reiterated that she still believed there to be a great amount of work to be done. “No man or woman can achieve everything in eight years with so many disparities, especially along racial bias, which persists in our nation,” she said.

Congresswoman Lee noted that while the poverty rate of African-Americans has fallen, it’s still at 23.9 percent. “One quarter of African-Americans are living in poverty, that’s more than two-and-a-half times the poverty rate of whites,” she explained, “and many of those families that have escaped poverty are still struggling.”

She also mentioned the wealth gap between white and black households and the wage gap for black women.

Lee used the analogy of “two Americas: one black, one white, separate and unequal” to describe the disparity.

“The statistics should urge us to action,” she said, “action that embraces both strategies as the next civil and human rights movement moves forward. Both strategies should include a variety of ways to move forward, and that should include looking at what reparations really means.”

Congresswoman Lee believes it to be necessary for Congress to pass HR40, which is a piece of legislation that would allow for the study of reparations and the proposals for the African Americans Act.

Lee also suggested looking at other countries that have passed reparation acts such as the Caribbean countries.

“We’ve got to recognize that our current structure, institutions, and policies, both public and private, they do embody the vestiges of the Middle Passage of slavery,” said Lee, “and we need to come up with some real solutions based on this clarity as we fight for a more just America, equal protection under the law, and for an end to institutional racism and bigotry.”

Lee ended by sharing her confidence that those in the audience would come up with great ideas to help the country provide “liberty and justice for all.”

Tweets from this event: