In the midst of a nation-wide debate about police violence following police shootings of black men in California, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and elsewhere1 the United Nations has issued a report, urging the United States to pay reparations to its black citizens for the legacy of slavery. The report “contains the findings of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its visit to the United States” and documents “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance faced by people of African descent in the United States.”2 The report proceeds to make recommendations for addressing these issues. Among its many recommendations, the report emphasizes the dire need for reparative justice.
There is a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic trade in Africans, enslavement, colonization and colonialism were a crime against humanity and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance. Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice. The report provides a number of recommendations for reparative strategies, including erecting “[m]onuments, memorials and markers . . . to facilitate public dialogue,” and passing “[f]ederal and state legislation . . . recognizing the negative impact of enslavement and racial injustice.” At least with regard to federal legislation, the report actually specifies an existing bill. The Working Group encourages Congress to pass H.R. 40 — the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act — which would establish a commission to examine enslavement and racial discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and to recommend appropriate remedies. The Working Group urges the United States to consider seriously applying analogous elements contained in the Caribbean Community’s Ten-Point Action Plan on Reparations, which includes a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities, an African knowledge programme, psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.
Of course, the report is not binding on the US, and the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African- Americans Act has not been passed in the twenty-six years since its introduction. Sources report the bill has a .0003% chance of becoming law (3% chance of making it out of committee, compounded by a 1% chance of passage).3 You read that correctly, a bill merely proposing to study the problem has virtually no possibility of becoming law. At a time when opposition to police murdering black folks in the streets is somehow controversial, hopefully the UN report will remind Americans that stopping horrific abuses of black folks is imperative but insufficient, and that affirmative steps toward justice for the descendants of slavery are still direly needed.
Corey Stone is a second year law school student at the University of Iowa College of Law and a student writer for the Journal of Gender, Race, & Justice.