by Laurie Mallison
October 17, 2016
“U.S. owes black people reparations for a history of ‘racial terrorism,’ says U.N. panel” The Washington Post proclaimed a couple weeks ago. Though the headline sensationalized the Human Rights Council’s findings and largely dismissed the report as another piece of empty rhetoric, it may also have underestimated the value of rhetoric and how broad the definition of reparations is.
The report was completed in August by the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent after their visit in January to several cities across the eastern United States. Perhaps the most valuable piece of the report is objectively stating what many special interest groups have been saying for years: racism is systemic. It cites statistics that are somehow both shocking and unsurprising regarding the rates of incarceration, death penalty cases, pregnancy complications, domestic violence related deaths, unemployment, wage, and police-related killings, all definitively concluding that Black people are more at risk. The report grimly predicts that one in three Black people born today will end up in prison at some point in their lives if key reforms are not made.
The U.S. is not obligated to pay any heed to this report, though the Working Group did come by U.S. invitation. In fact, many of the recommendations are not feasible for the U.S. legal system, at least at the present time when terms like “bipartisan support” elicit more sighs than consideration. One of the complications in enacting reparative justice is actually one of the central pillars of our legal system: checks and balances within and on the federal government. Many of the recommendations made by the working group are under state jurisdiction, such as education and state-run prisons. The challenge is that change does not require just one federal government to respond to the report’s findings and recommendations, but fifty states as well. It is impossible to guarantee people of color equal protection under the law when there may be as many interpretations of the laws as there are states, counties, and cities. One example of this obstacle the report highlights is the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While it is considered a victory for civil rights, the recent restrictions North Carolina attempted to impose demonstrate how the federal government can be limited in its reform efforts. For these reasons, at first perusal the U.N. report reads like an idealist’s call for justice.
However, there is value to framing the case of historic and continued racism in terms of human rights. Instead of tackling inequalities issue by issue—the death penalty, selective history in schools, access to food stamps and other benefits—they can be viewed collectively as violations of constitutional rights and violations of international law. Not only will this enable the federal government or Supreme Court to take necessary action to promote more consistent rights across states, but those whose human rights have been violated are entitled to reparations.
Reparation is a big word that may seem unmanageable in its execution, a “too little too late” effort. In 2005 the U.N. published Resolution 60/147 that breaks that word down into more manageable tasks as well as clarifies that there is no statute of limitations on human rights violations. Some reparations are as simple as ensuring the people group has “enjoyment of human rights” and access to legal and social services. Other reparations are already in progress such as “public disclosure of the truth,” with the notable exception of several Texas textbooks, and “commemorations and tributes” such as the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. One possible reparation that may be the most important in this case is “guarantees of non-repetition.” The U.N. report contains useful information, but nothing particularly novel. However, its value is that it puts the present injustices in a historical context, highlighting the fact that this particular reparation is urgently demanding fulfillment.
All this is to say that the idea of the U.S. owing Black people reparations is not a new one, and it should not be an optional one. Though the report offered many possible suggestions of varying feasibility, if the purpose of such a report is to enact each and every suggested solution, it seems a waste of U.N. time and resources to set up such a disappointment. Instead of focusing on how each suggestion may be executed and what sort of international pressure the U.N. opinion will provide, the U.S. would be better served to absorb the report into its political dialogue.
Laurie Mallison is a 1st year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.