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Human Rights

Reparations owed for “Racial Terrorism” says UN Committee

A vigil for Ferguson at McGill University in Montreal in November 2014. Credit: Gerry Lauzon / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 31 2016 (IPS) - Stressing the enduring relationship between injuries inflicted by slavery and contemporary injustices, a UN committee has recently issued a strongly-worded call for reparations for black U.S. Americans.

“A systemic ideology of racism ensuring the domination of one group over another continues to impact negatively on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today,” said the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, in a report released in August.

So far this year 212 black people have been killed by police in the United States, according to statistics collected by The Guardian. This is almost a quarter of the total 883 people killed by police in 2016, despite the fact that only 14.4 percent of US Americans are of African descent.

While only 6.5% of the US population are African American men, they constitute 40.2% of prison populations, according to Ana DuVernay’s recent film 13TH. While 1 in 17 white men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, one in three black men can expect to be incarcerated.

The group’s report, which focuses especially on police brutality against black Americans as “reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching,” makes 35 diverse recommendations, from establishing sovereign human rights commissions to the reinstatement of voting rights of former felons.

Yet critics question whether the liberal human rights paradigm can adequately address this kind of cruelty and oppression, originating as it does in 20th century Europe, where fascism had recently taken root, and in light of Europe’s own role in creating and perpetuating racial injustice.

“Not only is there no curriculum recognition about the real history of our country… but there’s also no cultural recognition,” -- Kesi Foster.

“In the era of the Atlantic slave trade,” says Andrew Johnson, Professor of African American Studies at Harvard University, “new notions of difference – absolute, racial notions of difference – were used to define, describe, and justify the political economy of slavery”, articulating the centrality of racism in capitalist exploitation.

Demands for reparations have been largely ignored in the political mainstream. A bill, HR-40, introduced in 1989 to establish a commission examining the “fundamental injustice, cruelty” and brutality of slavery has gained little traction – though the UN committee recommends its passage through Congress. Last year, then-presidential candidate democratic socialist Bernie Sanders dismissed the question of reparations saying that it wouldn’t get through Congress and would be “too divisive”.

Noting Sanders’ determination to push the boat out on issues of class, celebrated writer and proponent of reparations Ta-Nehisi Coates deplored this lack of political imagination: “I thought Sanders’s campaign might remind Americans that what is imminently doable and what is morally correct are not always the same things, and while actualising the former we can’t lose sight of the latter,” Coates said.

He urged that class-based solutions are inappropriate to address “racial plunder” – borne out by the fact that the median income for African American households ($36,898) is almost half their white counterparts ($62,950). The median value of total assets of black families, $4,900, versus white families, $97,000, reveals an even starker difference.

Movement for Black Lives

The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of over 50 black-led organisations, has set out five key requests which would begin to restore what has been being stolen “since the time that the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa,” in the words of Black Panther Angela Davis.

They focus especially on education, a particular site of harm since it was made illegal to teach enslaved people to read, a law which began in South Carolina in 1740 and was punishable by death in Louisiana. Since then, owing to redlining policies and explicit disinvestment in primarily-black schools, African Americans have continued to suffer from worse educational opportunities, with black students expelled at three times the rate of white students.

“You’re more likely to walk into your hallway and interact with a police officer – in a school – than a guidance counselor,” Kesi Foster, Coordinator at the Urban Youth Collaborative, and contributor to the policy recommendations for the Movement for Black Lives’ demand for reparations, told IPS, saying that in New York, there is one guidance counselor for every 322 students, but a police officer for every 192 students.

These officers are more prevalent in schools with metal detectors, which are usually primarily non-white. Describing what is often called the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’, Foster says that reparative justice could begin by defunding the COPS programme which stations police in schools in line with the perception that black and brown males are “inherently dangerous”.


After the end of the American Civil War in 1865, people who were formerly enslaved were given forty acres of tillable land – and, sometimes a mule. But after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination the same year, his successor Andrew Johnson reversed Lincoln’s directive for redistribution.

Calls for reparations have a long history proceeding from this date, and have tended to focus on material restitution, which makes the Movement for Black Lives’ emphasis on education salient. “Not only is there no curriculum recognition about the real history of our country… but there’s also no cultural recognition,” Foster says. “In Germany and other places… where really atrocious things have taken place, there are markers.”

They call for “mandated public school curriculums that critically examine the political, economic, and social impacts of colonialism and slavery, and funding to support, build, preserve, and restore cultural assets and sacred sites to ensure the recognition and honoring of our collective struggles and triumphs.”

It is clear that fulsome reparations for the continued atrocities perpetrated against people of African descent are not about to be freely given simply because whites are made to see the error of their ways. In the words of Mariame Kaba, organiser, educator and founder of Project NIA, speaking at a recent conference on the disproportionate effect the war on drugs has had on black communities, “the system can’t indict itself. You can’t think that the system that is killing you is going to save you.”

Kaba, who helped in the fight for plaintiffs’ justice in the Burge torture trials, discussed the extensive public apology that was eventually won by some of those Burge tortured, and the history’s inclusion in Chicago’s curriculums, demonstrating the essential role honest expressions of responsibility can play in processes of healing for black communities who have been brutalised by the state.

But the Movement’s foremost demand is for the “full and free access for all Black people (including undocumented and currently and formerly incarcerated people) to lifetime education” in its every form, including the “retroactive forgiveness of student loans”.

Professor Harold McDougall, who teaches law at Howard University, has, among many others, argued for the necessity of black-only education. McDougall would like to see Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), like Howard, funded to set up “Reparations Academies” for the descendents of people who were “damaged by educational racism”. This is a practical measure as much as it compounds Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s view that “group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength”.

McDougall, like others in this struggle, wears two hats: “you have to be able to firmly advance your point of view in the governance process, but even at that time to have your feet firmly grounded in the community, so that the broad-base of the population is continually informing your sense of what needs to be done,” he told IPS.

“When this is going to happen is not something we’re necessarily wrestling with,” Foster says. “For me, it’s more important [to ask]… how does this struggle lead us forward in a way that’s actually transformational, and that’s actually trying to significantly change the material conditions that black people are living under, because of the way that the system was set up, which is to basically profit off of our bodies, profit off our labour, and then give nothing back to us,” citing Chicago’s victory as an example.

Taking a long view, McDougall says that “it’s important to look at these struggles as multi-generational – the problems were not created in a generation. It is unlikely, although not impossible, that they will be solved in your lifetime, so what you do is you roll the ball forward for as long as you can.”

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  • JW

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards

  • tiger956

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards

  • tiger956

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards

  • patrickkell

    Hmm well lets see if we are allowed to have an honest conversation here. United States received less the 5% of the black slaves during the slave trade. Blacks in America currently have a better standard of living then any black nation currently in existence. The Irish were also slaves and never offered reparations and often treated more harshly due to the fact they were cheaper to purchase. So what is the other countries who received 95% of the slaves will to pay? Why are only demands being made of the USA that ended slavery?

  • chestnut

    Every day and night across America many thousands of blacks are stopped by police for various reasons. The vast majority of them follow instructions, act in a reasonable and civil manner, don’t make sudden, furtive or threatening-appearing moves…and don’t get abused, let alone shot…they go on their way with perhaps a warning, a citation for speeding or some other minor infraction.

    Those who play the Race of Spades card with an attitude or being high on illicit drugs are less likely to improve their situation and image.

  • chestnut

    thug defenders are not fond of facts.

  • chestnut

    If the pearl clutchers can produce an American citizen who was a slave, I promise to donate one half of my portfolio to that individual. I dare say many others would be willing to do the same.

    Come to think of it, if they can find someone who OWNED a slave, I promise to kick his butt.

  • David Johns

    ABSOLUTELY 100%! (of course it’s kind of racist to believe that Africans were the only race ever held as slaves and that white Americans were the only one’s to own them. But hey, it isn’t racism if it’s directed at white Americans….right?)
    The UN should definitely demand that the Northern African tribes and Turkish slave traders who sold African slaves to foreign buyers world-wide compensate them for their trials and tribulations. (we should mention that there are still slaves living in Northern Africa and the Middle East but that would be racist … right?)
    Every former slave still living today should receive $1,000,000 immediately … we can even take it from every former slave owner still living today. (just the one’s in America … not Northern Africa or the Middle East)
    And let’s just forget that less than 6.5% of the American population is responsible for 50-60% of the violent crime and focus on the fact that those exact same people are far more likely to end up in prison … it’s just a coincidence … or a conspiracy.
    Let’s also forget that while about 200 blacks have been killed by police this year, almost 6000 have been killed by other blacks … it must be the same coincidental conspiracy that puts so many black males in prison.
    So hey, let’s not treat black Americans as equals … let’s forgive their loans, give them free stuff and lot’s of money because, you know, equality.

  • TheSouthernNationalist

    Yankees owe Southern folk reparations for the attack and genocide of Southern peoples and for our culture destruction.

  • TheSouthernNationalist

    Very true, another fun fact is the very first slave owner in America WAS A BLACK MAN!

  • patrickkell

    The race card got declined due to insufficient funds

  • patrickkell

    I see this site is censoring the truth

  • patrickkell

    We will never fix the problems of racism because people don’t want to have an honest conversation about it, they would rather just lecture us on what they feel the solution would be. The truth is not welcomed here.

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