UN group recommends 'reparatory justice' for African Americans

The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent criticized disparities in wealth, health care, and criminal justice for African Americans.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US President Barack Obama walks past a statue of escaped slave and prominent black reformer Frederick Douglass before Obama delivers remarks at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol commemorating the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States, in December 2015.

A United Nations working group visiting the United States walks away "extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans," members said in a preliminary report released Friday, in which they urged the US government to address the legacy of slavery with "reparatory justice," a national human rights commission, and ongoing criminal justice reform.

"The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent," wrote members of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, at the conclusion of a 10-day trip to the United States. 

The Working Group is preparing a final report to deliver in September 2016, as part of the International Decade for People of African Descent, which the UN began in 2015 to recognize and remedy the ongoing impacts of slavery and colonialism on more than 200 million people of African descent living around the world. Many of its preliminary recommendations are drawn from a similar report following a study visit to the US in 2010.

"The state is also not acting with due diligence to protect the rights of African American communities," the group writes, citing problems from disproportionate imprisonment and police violence to hate crimes such as the massacre at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015:

The persistent gap in almost all the human development indicators, such as life expectancy, income and wealth, level of education and even food security, among African Americans and the rest of the US population, reflects the level of structural discrimination that creates de facto barriers for people of African descent to fully exercise their human rights.

According to Pew, wealth inequality between blacks and whites has reached its highest point since 1989, when white households had 17 times the wealth of black households.

The working group applauds a number of criminal justice reforms, such as the Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the Fair Sentencing Act, as well as the Affordable Health Care Act, and urges the creation of a national commission for African American human rights. Many of its suggestions, however, are focused on education and commemoration, including "reparatory justice":

There is a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity and among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and that Africans and people of African descent were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences. Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.

Their recommendations do not specify what is meant by "reparatory justice." Frequently, however, reparations involve financial compensation for a community's violated human rights, as when West Germany paid more than $7 billion (in today's currency) to the newly-created state of Israel and the World Jewish Congress, a move bitterly opposed by many Germans and Jews alike.

The working group does encourage Congress to pass H.R. 40, a bill introduced year after year by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the longest-serving member of Congress. Rep. Conyers, who is black, was first elected in 1965. 

H.R. 40 calls to create a commission to study slavery's past and present impact on African American communities, and to consider appropriate reparations. 

Debate about American reparations to descendants of slaves reignited in 2014, when The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates published "The Case for Reparations" and walked readers through centuries of discriminatory history, from slavery, to Jim Crow Laws, to "redlining" housing policies, to argue that the country needed a national discussion about reparations. Mr. Coates did not endorse a specific reparations policy, but encouraged passing H.R. 40, and cited a number of other proposals, from dollar amount estimates to job-training plans. 

Cash reparations are a deeply unpopular idea with many voters, and opposed by many politicians, as well. Bernie Sanders, for instance, said he believes reparations would be "divisive;" the Democratic presidential candidate does, however, believe the US should issue a formal apology for slavery.

In a 2014 YouGov poll, only 15 percent approved. Among white Americans, that number was just 6 percent; among black Americans, it was 59 percent.

Seventy-eight percent of white respondents said that slavery was "not a factor at all" or a "minor factor" contributing to black Americans' lower average wealth today. 

Cash reparations are not unprecedented in the US, however. In 1988, then-President Ronald Reagan signed legislation offering $20,000 to each Japanese-American imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. 

While some arguments for "reparative justice" focus on financial compensation, many also emphasize that the price, methods, and benefits of reparations are about more than money. As Mr. Coates wrote in 2014:

An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

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