US: Groups Ask Biden to Create Commission to Study Reparations

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A woman tends to a 150-foot garden planted outside the White House to raise awareness of slavery’s legacy in Washington, DC. 
© Photograph by Dermot Tatlow © 2022 Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – A coalition of racial justice and human rights groups came together on June 16, 2022 to press United States President Joe Biden to issue an executive order creating a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for enslavement and its legacy. The coalition built a 150 x 50-foot Pan African flag made of flowers and plants on the Ellipse outside of the White House to draw attention to the issue.

The coalition, Why We Can’t Wait, which includes Human Rights Watch, Color Of Change, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), and the Reparations Education Project, called upon the president to uphold his commitment to Black people in the US and help the nation begin to heal from its shameful and abhorrent history of chattel slavery, racial subjugation, and ongoing racial discrimination. 

The commission would examine the issue of reparations for Black people for the ongoing legacy of enslavement and ways to advance racial equity in the United States. The federal bill H.R. 40, meant to establish this commission, has languished in the US House of Representatives for more than three decades. Despite receiving a landmark vote out of a congressional committee in April 2021, having a record amount of support, and enough votes for passage in the House, H.R. 40 remains stalled. An executive order would sidestep this legislative gridlock and allow immediate establishment of the commission, the groups said.

“If the US wants to hold itself out as a democracy that cares about the rights and wellbeing of all its people, then President Biden and the federal government should act on reparations for the legacy of slavery and racial subjugation immediately by issuing an executive order on reparations,” said Dreisen Heath, US racial justice researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “As a country we’ve experienced the human costs of not acting on federal reparations and it can no longer wait. Black lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Biden and members of his administration have repeatedly pledged their support to address the continuing legacies of enslavement and to studying the possibility of providing reparations. Yet nearly halfway through his term, he has taken no concrete steps to do so. 

“There are modern-day decisions happening today that exacerbate injustices and attack Black communities,” said Amanda Jackson, economic justice campaign director at Color Of Change. “The stakes could not be higher. We have an opportunity to move beyond acknowledgments and begin to address the real-life cost of racism and white supremacy. An established commission will investigate not only the legacy of slavery and its ongoing harms, but also come up with concrete proposals to Congress for redress and repair.”

Issuing an executive order to establish a commission on reparations would be a landmark step, the groups said. It would send a clear message that the United States is ready to begin atoning for the indelible harm inflicted on those who were enslaved and their descendants. With the stroke of a pen, President Biden can begin this process and make good on his promise to Black Americans. 

“The US Congress has continually compromised the human and civil rights of Black people, from the ‘Three-Fifths Clause’ to supporting modern voter suppression laws, aimed to dilute Black voices in the electorate,” said Adjoa Aiyetoro, attorney and founding member of N’COBRA. “President Biden, we ask you to be true to your promises of addressing the vestiges of racial injustice.”

Watch a recording of the event and download photos and videos here.

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