On behalf of Human Rights Watch, I thank Chairman Nadler and Ranking Member Jordan of the US House Committee on the Judiciary and Chairman Cohen and Ranking Member Johnson of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, for the opportunity to submit this statement for a hearing to address the Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre. My name is Dreisen Heath and I am a researcher and advocate on racial justice issues, with an expertise in reparative justice, within the United States Program at Human Rights Watch. I am also the author of Human Rights Watch’s May 2020 report entitled “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument.”
Human Rights Watch is a non-profit, independent organization that investigates allegations of human rights violations in more than 100 countries around the world, including in the United States, by interviewing victims and witnesses, gathering information from a variety of sources, and issuing detailed reports. Where human rights violations have been found, Human Rights Watch advocates for redress, accountability, and changes to laws, policies, and practices with authorities to better protect human rights, and mobilizes public pressure for change. Its US Program works on human rights issues within the United States, with a strong focus on racial justice.
Reparations Are Owed to Tulsa Massacre Victims, Descendants & Broader Black Community
The 1921 Tulsa race massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the US, occurred in a broader context of racist violence and oppression stemming from slavery, which continues to impact Black people in Tulsa today. In just hours, between May 31 and June 1, 1921, decades of Black prosperity and millions of dollars in hard-earned Black wealth were wiped out by a violent white mob, some deputized by local Tulsa officials.
In the Human Rights Watch report “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” I detailed the massacre, failure to prosecute anyone for the violence, and subsequent destruction that left hundreds Black people dead and more than 1,200 Black-owned houses burned to the ground in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, then known as “Black Wall Street.” The report described how the city thwarted attempts to rebuild and how subsequent discriminatory federal, state, and local policies, such as redlining, the use of eminent domain, and other measures to seize Black-owned property, and highway construction, prevented Greenwood and the broader North Tulsa community from advancing.
Human Rights Watch called on Tulsa and Oklahoma governments to provide immediate reparations, including direct payments, to the few surviving massacre victims, and recover and identify remains that may be in mass graves. We also called on them to develop a comprehensive reparations plan in close consultation with the local Black community for the harm caused by the massacre and its lasting impact, not only on the direct victims and their descendants, but also the Black community in Tulsa more broadly; that plan should include compensation for the descendants of victims. We called on federal and state authorities to lift legal barriers to civil legal claims related to the massacre.
One hundred years after the massacre, its known survivors (Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher, and Hughes Van Ellis), descendants of massacre victims, and the broader Black community in Tulsa are still reeling from its compounded impacts. Despite increasing awareness of the massacre’s impacts and growing calls for reparations, city and state authorities have not done enough to adequately and fully repair past and ongoing harms that affect Tulsa’s Black community.
For more details on the Tulsa race massacre and the requirement for reparations, please find a copy of our report attached as Appendix A.
The Right to an Effective Remedy and Reparation Under International Human Rights Law
On September 1, 2020, after seeing decades of inaction on reparations, a legal team that is part of the organization Justice for Greenwood, filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and others that includes as plaintiffs the three remaining known survivors of the Tulsa race massacre—Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106 years old, Viola Fletcher, 107 years old, and Hughes Van Ellis, 100 years old—as well as some descendants of victims of the massacre. The suit seeks compensation for the losses they endured as a result of the massacre as well as ongoing harm connected to it.
However, victims of gross violations of human rights, like the Tulsa race massacre, should not have to file a lawsuit to receive full and effective reparations that are proportional to the gravity of the violation and the harm suffered. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence: “Domestic reparation [programs] are the most effective tool for victims of gross human rights violations and serious violations of humanitarian law to receive reparation. Without them, victims would have to prove their status in a court of law, including by providing all the necessary evidence, pay the expensive costs of litigation, and wait several years before their claim is, if at all, successful.”
The United States is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Both core international human rights treaties guarantee the right to an effective remedy for human rights violations, including acts of racial discrimination. This right requires that governments ensure access to justice, truthful information about the violation, and reparation. Victims of gross violations of human rights, like the Tulsa race massacre, should receive full and effective reparations that are proportional to the gravity of the violation and the cumulative harm suffered.
Reparation, as defined by international human rights standards, includes the following forms:
- Restitution: measures to restore the situation that existed before the wrongful act(s) were committed, such as restoration of liberty, employment and return to the place of residence and return of property.
- Compensation: monetary payment for “economically assessable damage” arising from the violation, including physical or mental harm, material losses, and lost opportunities.
- Rehabilitation: provision of “medical and psychological care as well as legal and social services.”
- Satisfaction: includes a range of measures involving truth-telling, statements aimed at ending ongoing abuses, commemorations or tributes to the victims, preservation of historical memory, and expressions of regret or formal apology for wrongdoing.
- Guarantees of non-repetition: includes institutional and legal reform as well as reforms to government practices to end the abuse.
Reparation Measures Require Direct and Ongoing Community Consultation
Reparations require a victim-centered approach. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence has said that “domestic reparation [programs] should include adequate consultation with and participation of victims in their design, implementation and monitoring processes.” Victims seeking comprehensive remedy, including descendants, should have an opportunity to shape reparations measures to ensure the reparation program’s “completeness” and the success of victims’ participation mechanisms should be “measured not merely in terms of token measures but also in terms of satisfactory outcomes.” Seeking victims’ participation thus requires “effective outreach, information, and access,” which may be aided by community organizations that have “closer links with and a deeper reach into victims’ communities than official institutions.”
Tulsa and the Need for Federal Reparations
What happened in Tulsa is not an anomaly. The people killed in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre were only some of the thousands of people killed in racial terror lynchings that took place in the United States between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. According to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an estimated 4,300 racial terror lynchings took place during that time, including those that occurred during the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. In the year 1919 alone, more than two dozen different incidents of racially motivated violence took place, including in Chicago, Illinois; Washington, DC; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Elaine, Arkansas.
Across the US, federal, state, and local policy decisions in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as redlining and urban renewal, further contributed to structural racism in infrastructure and the creation of present day economic, education, employment, and health inequalities, as well as housing segregation. They also contributed to the expansion of discriminatory and abusive policing and criminal legal systems that preserve unequal power structures and that still exist today.
In Tulsa, anti-Black policies, many of them stemming from federal programs, ongoing structural racism, and the government’s inadequate response to the massacre, have contributed to deep racial disparities in multiple areas, from access to health and nutritious food to education in Tulsa today. Such disparities are also deeply rooted in the US history of slavery.
In Tulsa today, Black neighborhoods remain underdeveloped and under-resourced. Large percentages of Black people live in North Tulsa, usually defined as the region above the 244 Freeway and Admiral Boulevard, which is significantly poorer than other parts of the city and includes the historic Greenwood district.
According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch analysis, more than 35 percent of North Tulsa’s population lives in poverty compared with 17 percent in the rest of the city, though in some census tracts in North Tulsa it is even higher, with 63.7 percent of residents living in poverty. Citywide, the Black poverty rate is 34 percent while the white poverty rate is 13 percent.
In addition to experiencing significant poverty, Black Tulsans, especially in North Tulsa, experience high unemployment, meager economic development, and segregated schools Overaggressive policing further fuels the poverty.
Black people are subjected to more aggressive policing than white people in Tulsa. The rate with which police use physical force against Black people in Tulsa is 2.7 times greater than the rate used against white people on a per capita basis. While making up about 17 percent of Tulsa’s population, Black people are subject to almost 40 percent of police violence.
Human Rights Watch has long been supportive of the development of broader reparations plans to account for the brutality of slavery and historic racist laws that set different rules for Black and white people. Accordingly, Human Rights Watch supports US House Resolution 40 (H.R. 40), a federal bill to establish a commission to examine the impacts of the transatlantic slave trade and subsequent racial and economic discriminatory institutions, laws, and practices. The US government has never adequately accounted for these wrongs or the subsequent 20th and 21st century policy decisions that have perpetuated structural racism to this day, but it has an opportunity to begin to do so through the establishment of an H.R. 40 reparations commission. H.R. 40 has been circulating in Congress for over 30 years but recently gained renewed momentum given a growing public understanding about the harms of slavery and its continuing impact today. The bill has garnered 185 co-sponsors in the House this Congress; a companion bill in the Senate, S. 40, has 21 co-sponsors.
US policymakers’ failure to account for the historic racial and gendered injustices of slavery and its legacy has compounded the harm and fueled the persistence of racial inequality today, as evident in Tulsa and many other cities across the US. Enduring racist structures remain in place and accumulated racial discrimination has gone unaddressed. Despite a shift in racial attitudes, civil rights-era legislation from the 1960s did not adequately address the core of systemic racism and resulting racial equity gaps. A holistic inquiry into these injustices and the ways subsequent policy has created and reinforced structures and systems that have prevented Black people from advancing is urgently needed, as is a plan to provide reparation and healing for these harms. If Congress were to pass H.R. 40 it would be the first meaningful step toward this reparation, which is essential if we are to seriously address white supremacy, systemic racism, and racial inequality in the United States.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.
 Human Rights Watch, The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2020), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2020/11/tulsa-reparations0520_web.pdf.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Dreisen Heath, “Tulsa Searches for Mass Graves from 1921 Tusa Race Massacre,” Human Rights Watch dispatch, July 14, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/14/tulsa-searches-mass-graves-1921-race-massacre.
 Human Rights Watch, The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma, p. 61 – 66.
 Amended Complaint, Benningfield Randle, Lessie vs. City of Tulsa, Tulsa County District Court, filed February 2, 2021, case no. CV-2020-1179, https://7f71937d-3875-4a5d-8642-bfb10d690e0f.filesusr.com/ugd/7b82e9_6f2ce917ef5b4ff7aaa1b0fcf282cc2a.pdf
 United Nations General Assembly, Report of UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Fabian Salvioli, prepared pursuant to UN Human Rights Council resolution 36/7, July 11, 2019, https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/42/45, para. 32.
 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, ratified by the United States September 8, 1992, art. 2; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), adopted December 21, 1965, G.A. Res. 2106 (XX), annex, 20 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 14) at 47, U.N. Doc A/6014 (1966), 660 U.N.T.S. 195, entered into force January 4, 1969, ratified by the United States November 20, 1994, art. 6. UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 31: The Nature of the General Legal Obligation on States Parties to the Covenant (Eightieth session, 2004), U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.13 (2004), para. 15.
 UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 31, paras 15 et seq; Basic Principles, para. 11.
 “Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law,” UN General Assembly Resolution 60/147 of 16 December 2005, https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/remedyandreparation.aspx, (hereinafter “Basic Principles”), para. 18.
 Basic Principles, para. 19.
 Basic Principles, para. 20.
 Basic Principles, para. 21.
 Basic Principles, para. 22.
 Basic Principles, para. 23.
 United Nations General Assembly, Report of UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Fabian Salvioli, prepared pursuant to UN Human Rights Council resolution 36/7, July 11, 2019, https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/42/45, para. 61.
 United Nations General Assembly, Report of UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Fabian Salvioli, prepared pursuant to UN Human Rights Council resolution 18/7, October 14, 2014, https://undocs.org/en/A/69/518, para. 74 – 80.
 Ibid., para. 76.
 Ibid,, para. 74.
 The Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,”, p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 46. When counting the number of Black people killed during the Tulsa Race Massacre and adding that to the total number of “racial terror lynchings,” during this period, the EJI report uses the number 36. But it notes in its report that “at least 36,” had died and that the number varies greatly among sources from 36 to 300. See “Lynching in America: Oklahoma,” Equal Justice Initiative, https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/explore/oklahoma, and Ibid., p, 46, n. 188.
 “A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” (hereinafter “Tulsa Race Riot Report”), February 28, 2001, https://www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf, p. 43; see also Hannibal B. Johnson, Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District (Fort Worth: Eakin Press, 2007), p. 27-28; Zinn Ed Project, “Red Summer,” https://www.zinnedproject.org/collection/red-summer/.
 Andre M. Perry and Daivd Harshbarger, “America’s formerly redlined neighborhoods have changed, and so must solutions to rectify them,” Brookings Institute, October 14, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/americas-formerly-redlines-areas-changed-so-must-solutions/.
 Katherine Schwab, “The Racist Roots Of ‘Urban Renewal’ And How It Made Cities Less Equal,” Fast Company, January 4, 2018, https://www.fastcompany.com/90155955/the-racist-roots-of-urban-renewal-and-how-it-made-cities-less-equal.
 Ibid., p. 20-36.
 Brian Root, “Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” date interactive, September 11, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/interactive/2019/09/11/policing-poverty-and-racial-inequality-tulsa-oklahoma; “Get on the Ground!”: Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Case Study of US Law Enforcement, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2019), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/us0919_tulsa_web.pdf.
 “Get on the Ground!,” p. 129.
 Dreisen Heath, “US Congress Can Help Heal the Wounds of Slavery,” Human Rights Watch dispatch, June 19, 2019 https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/19/us-congress-can-help-heal-wounds-slavery; United Nations, “Report of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,” https://www.un.org/WCAR/durban.pdf
 Human Rights Watch Written Testimony of Dreisen Heath Submitted to the US House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, “H.R. 40: Exploring the Path to Reparative Justice in America,” February 17, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/17/hr-40-exploring-path-reparative-justice-america
 Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, H.R. 40, 117th Cong. (2020), https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/40/cosponsors?searchResultViewType=expanded
 Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, S. 40, 117th Cong. (2020), https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/40/cosponsors?searchResultViewType=expanded
 Frank W. Munger and Caroll Seron, “Race, Law, and Inequality, 50 Years After the Civil Rights Era,” Annual Review of Law and Social Science, vol. 13 (2017): 331 – 350, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-110316-113452.
 Fred Drews, “Why Does Racial Inequality Persist Long after Jim Crow?,” Brookings Institute, October 9, 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brookings-now/2014/10/09/why-does-racial-inequality-persist-long-after-jim-crow/.
 Candis Watts Smith, “After the civil rights era, white Americans failed to support systemic change to end racism. Will they now?,” The Conversation, August 13, 2020, https://theconversation.com/after-the-civil-rights-era-white-americans-failed-to-support-systemic-change-to-end-racism-will-they-now-141954; Ibram Kendi, “The Civil Rights Act was a victory against racism. But racists also won.,” Washington Post, July 2, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/07/02/the-civil-rights-act-was-a-victory-against-racism-but-racists-also-won/.