The first government proposal to repair the damage of US slavery was Special Field Order No. 15 from civil war general William T. Sherman. The wartime order from Sherman, who led Union soldiers, allotted 40 acres of land to some newly freed Black families in 1865, but the order was soon reversed by President Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Three years prior, in 1862, Lincoln did provide financial reparations to roughly 3,185 slaveholders in the District of Columbia for their loss of “human property” as a result of emancipation but not to enslaved Africans, who suffered brutal exploitation, violence, and cruelty.
Today, House Resolution 40 (H.R. 40) is a bill in the United States House of Representatives to establish a federal commission to study the legacy of slavery in the US and its ongoing harm, and develop proposals to repair the damage done. A nod to Sherman’s order, it was first introduced to Congress over 30 years ago. Reintroduced every year since 1989, it is now making historic progress. For the first time, on April 14, 2021, H.R. 40 was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee and can now be considered before the full House of Representatives.
Human Rights Watch has pushed for national and local reparations for the legacy of slavery and has worked alongside legacy reparations groups, such as the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and the National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC), to help get the issue national and international attention. In February, Human Rights Watch testified in support of H.R. 40 before the House Judiciary Committee. That same day, President Joe Biden’s press secretary said in the daily press briefing that the Biden administration supports the formation of a commission to study reparations.
This year has brought conversations around inequality and racial justice to the fore in the United States. Police killings of Black people rekindled a national movement last spring and summer as protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Black people, alongside other marginalized groups, in the US are more likely to contract and die from Covid-19, highlighting how systemic racism has created dramatic racial disparities in health, housing, employment, and other economic and social areas.
Human Rights Watch has supported the passage of H.R. 40 but also efforts on the local level. In 1921, a white mob destroyed an economically successful Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then known as Black Wall Street, burning down more than 1,200 homes, destroying businesses, and killing hundreds of people, the vast majority of them Black. On May 29, 2020, Human Rights Watch issued a report drawing a clear line between the massacre and the systemic racism that today continues to prevent Tulsa’s Black community from thriving. On May 31, 2020, we held a virtual forum on reparations for the Tulsa Race Massacre and the legacy of slavery together with the NARRC, the American Civil Liberties Union, and activists and leaders from Tulsa. Following this, in July 2020, US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced a historic resolution in both chambers of the US Congress, honoring the victims and condemning efforts to cover up the truth of what happened.
The type of reparations that governments provide can and should vary based on the types of harms experienced by affected communities, but it should be aimed at providing full and effective repair, proportional to the cumulative harm suffered. It can include apologizing for human rights violations, providing monetary compensation, providing rehabilitative services, creating scholarship funds, implementing institutional reforms, or designing targeted investment programs for community growth and development.
The right to an effective remedy, including reparations, is well established under international human rights law. The US is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. These conventions guarantee the right to effective remedy for human rights violations and racial discrimination and require that governments ensure access to justice and truthful information about the violation.
Congress should immediately pass H.R. 40 and begin a comprehensive federal study of slavery and its institutional and cultural impacts, and begin coming up with proposals to remedy its devastating harms. Justice can’t wait.