The idea that the United States needs to account for the harms of slavery is gaining traction nationally, and today Congress will hold a hearing on the issue - appropriately on Juneteenth, a day honoring the abolition of slavery in the United States.

A sculpture of African slaves by Ghanaian artist, Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, at the beginning of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

© Dreisen Heath/Human Rights Watch

The idea of reparations is not new. Human Rights Watch has long supported accounting for the brutality of slavery and historic racist laws that set different rules for Black people and white people — extraordinary human rights violations that, if committed today, would be crimes against humanity.

Yet reparations should be based not just on past harms but on contemporary ones too— the question is how to do so fairly and equitably. Today’s hearing will address just that: it will examine a bill, H.R. 40, which proposes creating a commission to study the impacts of slavery and make recommendations around “apology and compensation.” This commission should also serve to examine and seek changes to institutions, notably the criminal justice system, that arguably extend past racist practices by disproportionately targeting Black people.

African Americans continue to suffer the effects of slavery in the United States today. Drug enforcement laws produce extraordinarily high and disproportionate rates of incarceration for Black people, particularly Black men. Our research shows that while white people use drugs at the same rates as Black people, the latter are two-and-a-half times as likely to be arrested for drug possession. Black Americans are more likely to experience violence at the hands of police and are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people. In places like Flint, Michigan, predominantly Black communities’ right to water is violated. Low-income women and women of color face higher cervical cancer mortality due to lack of healthcare insurance and access, as well as bias and discrimination in the health system.

Congress can remedy some ongoing harm by enacting laws in accordance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Such laws should address specific injustices, such as eliminating mandatory minimum terms for drug offenses. But they should also ensure an end to discrimination in education, health and housing for all communities.

The legacy of slavery impacts the lives of millions of African Americans. Today’s hearing raises new possibilities for accountability and justice. If Congress can pass H.R. 40, it will be a historic step in the right direction.