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It's Juneteenth: Let's talk about reparations for slavery

Editor's Note: (Congressman Steve Cohen, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, represents Tennessee's 9th Congressional District. View more opinion articles on CNN.)

(CNN) For 246 years our laws supported a system that made people slaves, divided families, and treated human beings as property. And for nearly 100 after Reconstruction, that dark legacy continued with Jim Crow laws throughout the country.

African Americans were purposefully deprived of opportunity, the ability to exercise their rights, equal access to education, health care, public facilities and other programs. The civil rights movement of the '60s made important progress, but discrimination and the long term effects of segregation still linger.

In 2007, my first year in Congress, I introduced -- and in 2008, the House passed -- a resolution officially apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow. Apologies are a necessary first step, but they alone cannot solve the present inequities born of our nation's original sin: slavery.

A report by Demos in conjunction with the Institute for Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University found that, in 2011, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, while the median black household had only $7,113. This racial disparity is the product of centuries of policies that intentionally excluded and oppressed African Americans. Now we must be just as intentional in our effort to repair the damage and ensure that every American has full access to the opportunity that makes our nation great.

On Wednesday I will chair a hearing on H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. H.R. 40, named for the federal government's unfulfilled promise to provide freed African Americans with "40 acres and a mule," was first introduced by Rep. John Conyers in 1989. I have been a proud co-sponsor since my first term in Congress in 2007.

We chose to hold this historic hearing today because June 19th, also known as Juneteenth or Emancipation Day, holds significance in the African American community and among all who fight for justice. On this date in 1865, Union troops entered Galveston, taking control of Texas and freeing the last enslaved Americans. Today we celebrate freedom and independence of African Americans. I could think of no better day for a hearing on reparations and economic liberation.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw the fights for civil rights and economic justice as being inextricably linked. The memory of his movement is often simplified to a campaign for voting rights, but Memphians remember that, on the day of his death, Dr. King was in Memphis fighting for the rights of sanitation workers and leading the Poor People's Campaign.

As Americans, we have made a great deal of progress, but there is still work to be done. Dr. King's dream, that every American can fully pursue their potential, still eludes us. General investment in health care, education, workforce training and other programs is an important tool for narrowing the wealth gap and expanding opportunity. But to fully address these issues, we need to account for the underlying causes. That will require study and a structure to propose and analyze thoughtful and effective policies.

Reparations can be a contentious issue, but it will be impossible for us to close the racial wealth gap if we aren't willing to acknowledge the source of this problem or explore the full range of possible solutions.

H.R. 40 isn't about advancing any one agenda on if and how reparations should be provided; it's about suspending our personal policy preferences and making way for a commission that can seriously consider the issue and draft appropriate proposals.

Passing this bill will be a crucial step toward creating an economy that works for and supports all Americans. I look forward to hearing from Wednesday's witnesses, seeing H.R. 40 become law and exploring the solutions that a commission may develop.

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