Does the US owe blacks reparations? Yes, says UN panel.

The UN's recommendations may shine a light on fractures in America's race relations, even if the government never acts on them.

Mike Blake/Reuters
Demonstrators march to protest the police shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte, NC, Sept. 26, 2016. A UN report compares historical lynchings of blacks to police shootings of unarmed African-Americans today.

Can reparations reconcile some of the damage done by centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination?

The topic has always highlighted deep divides, and a recent United Nations report that called the slave trade a crime against humanity and urged the US to pay reparations has reignited the issue.

“Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice,” the report said. The recommendation came after 14 years of study and interviews with US officials by the United Nations' Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, a body of experts and human rights lawyers that reports to the international organization's High Commissioner on Human Rights.

The report authors wrote that they were "extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans," and made the case for a link between dark episodes of American history and present injustices, like police shootings.

While it's unlikely the group's recommendations would ever be implemented by the US government, it may serve to highlight fractures in America's race relations, the persistent challenges people of color confront in many walks of life, and the need to search for solutions.

Confronting a contentious past

But race, and certainly reparations, remains one of the most divisive and contentious issues in the US today, a point which may continue to impede efforts to find solutions, warns John Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.

"We cannot agree on basic truths in our contemporary political climate. We cannot agree on basic scientific truths. There is simply no way that a deep understanding of the past – one that connects our history, ideas, and culture – can be appropriately discussed in our political culture," says Professor Baick. "If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, reparations is far, far more dangerous."

In fact, the report simply connects past and present injustices toward African-Americans, to bring the issue to the forefront, says Michael Kelly, a professor of law at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

“International law generally stays out of the business of telling governments what to do with their own people," says Professor Kelly. "It's an effort to bring political pressure and re-ignite some level of guilt."

To that end, the report refers to race-related gaps as issues of human rights. "The persistent gap in almost all the human development indicators, such as life expectancy, income and wealth, level of education, housing, employment and labor, and even food security, among African-Americans and the rest of the U.S. population, reflects the level of structural discrimination that creates de facto barriers for people of African descent to fully exercise their human rights," the report stated.

Multiple studies have confirmed that those gaps are real. About 24 percent of African-Americans live in poverty, compared to 9 percent of whites, and child poverty rates hover near 40 percent for black children, compared to about 11 percent for white children. The unemployment rate for African-Americans (8.4 percent) is almost twice that of white Americans (4.4 percent). Black youth unemployment is a massive 19 percent, almost twice that of white youth unemployment (10 percent). And black men have a 1 in 3 lifetime probability of incarceration in the United States.

The report sought to connect these discrepancies with past injustices, "in particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality." They're not the first to make that link, says Baick, but it's an issue on which the country is deeply divided.

"American historians seek to make connections to the first slaves of Virginia in the early 1600s, the eventual hardening of racial attitudes and legal codes, and the terrible relationship of this early history and the lives of African-Americans in the 1700s and beyond," he says.

"But for all of the links that scholars have tried to make, there have been others who challenge these links. Some are scholars, some are public intellectuals, some are political leaders," he says. "A stunning number of Americans still believe that America’s first black president was not truly an American. A large number of Americans believe that whites face more discrimination than blacks."

Police shootings: Modern-day lynchings?

Perhaps one of the boldest connections the report made was comparing historical lynchings of blacks to police shootings of unarmed African-Americans today.

"Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency," the panel wrote, adding that it "is deeply concerned at the alarming levels of police brutality and excessive use of lethal force by law enforcement officials, committed with impunity against people of African descent in the United States."

This year alone, 196 black people were killed by police, including three recent high profile deaths of Terence Crutcher, Keith Scott, and 13-year-old Tyree King. Scott’s killing led to massive protests in Charlotte, NC. Overall, blacks are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than a white or Latino person.

"One simple truth that most Americans don’t recognize is that the police shootings that have occupied an increasing space in the public narrative of justice in the last few years is something that has deep roots," says Baick.

Of course, the issue of race relations is multi-layered and complex – President Bill Clinton's 1997 proclamation for a national conversation on race now seems laughably naive – but the report's call for reparations may help bring a sense of urgency to it, which may itself be the beginning of a path forward.

What reparations might look like

The working group suggested that reparations could come in a variety of forms, including "a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities ... psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation."

Financial reparations for human rights abuses are not without precedent: Germany has paid nearly $90 billion in reparations to Jewish victims of Nazis, and the US has disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to Japanese-Americans because of World War II internment.

And while universal reparations to African-Americans are unlikely, there has been some progress, like the recent decision by Georgetown University to offer preferential admissions to several hundred descendants of slaves, as well as the movement by the US House and Senate to apologize for slavery and Jim Crow laws.

The UN report also highlighted specific legislation that has helped African-Americans, like the recent executive order aimed at reducing the use of solitary confinement in prisons, and the Affordable Care Act, which they said “has allowed 2.3 million African-American adults to gain medical health insurance.” More can be done.

The report suggested emphasizing the history of colonization and the transatlantic slave trade in school curricula, erecting “monuments, memorials, and markers” that address slavery and Jim Crow laws, and passing federal and state legislation “recognizing the experience of enslavement.”

Baick suggests looking to South Africa as an example of how to move forward.

"Something that might offer some effect on improving race relations might be what was done in South Africa after the fall of apartheid," he says. "Post-apartheid South Africa is still a work in progress, but it is remarkable that the end of a system of de facto slavery could be ended without a bloody civil war or without horrible waves of revenge killings."

For now, he adds, acknowledging the dark chapters of US history may be a more effective step than reparations – at least in the current climate.

"Economic reparations are an important step," he says. "But a full understanding of America’s complex and sometimes painful history is necessary, too. If the need for reparations is not widely accepted as a universal truth, reparations might cumulatively do as much – or even more – harm than good."

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