Slavery’s legacy remains at the core of American race problems: UN experts

Slavery’s legacy remains at the core of American race problems: UN experts

By Luke Vargas   

UN panel suggests the US take inspiration from a Caribbean reparations plan involving an apology for the slave trade, technology transfer and debt relief.

UNITED NATIONS – Failure to address the legacy of slavery continues to enable structural and institutional racism across the United States and present “de facto barriers” for African-Americans, members of the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said Tuesday.

“The legacy of enslavement in the United States of America remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to recognition and reparations for people of African descent,” working group chair Ricardo A. Sunga III said.

In an August report summarizing a January visit to five U.S. cities, the working group concluded that from education to health to public safety, African-Americans were “[enjoying] different levels of protection of their rights depending on the state that they are living in.”

“The persistent gap in almost all the human development indicators, such as life expectancy, income and wealth, level of education, and even food security, between African Americans and the rest of the United States population, reflects the level of structural and institutional discrimination that creates de facto barriers for people of African descent to fully exercise their human rights.”

Ricardo Sunga III, Chairperson of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. UN Photo/Evan Schneider
Ricardo Sunga III, chairperson of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Beyond more overt instances of police violence, which “are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching,” Sunga and his colleagues said the “structural invisibility of African Americans” is being worsened by a range of practices in public life, particularly in education:

  • “The underfunding and closure of schools, particularly those in poor neighborhoods with significant African American populations”
  • The disproportionate use of “harsh disciplinary measures” against African American children within schools
  • School curricula that do not sufficiently cover the colonial period and the transatlantic slave trade, omissions that prevent students from learning about “the root causes of racial inequality and injustice”

Asked to cite an example of a successful government-led efforts to address the legacy of slavery and contemporary inequality, Sunga cited the Caribbean Community’s 10-point Reparations Justice Program (CRJP) as a model that could be applied to America.

Drafted in 2014, the CRJP asks European nations responsible for committing and sustaining “Crimes against Humanity in the forms of genocide, slavery, slave trading, and racial apartheid” to undertake a series of actions in pursuit of reconciliation.

Among those actions are the issuance of a formal apology for “victims and the descendants of the enslaved,” the sharing of science and technology with countries “denied participation in Europe’s industrialization process” and the cancellation of public debts in Caribbean countries that “inherited the massive crisis of community poverty and institutional unpreparedness for development.”

“The apology, the technology transfer, the debt relief – there are elements there that are relevant globally and that can be tailored fit to the unique situation of the United States,” Sunga said.

The U.S.-based Movement for Black Lives released a policy platform of its own earlier this year that mirrored and expanded upon the CRJP in a number of key areas. That platform demanded the establishment of “a guaranteed minimum livable income,” “full and free access for all Black people to lifetime education including” and called for dramatic reforms to campaign finance laws aimed at redistributing political power.

American legislative efforts to merely study the topic of reparations have been ‘dead on arrival’ in the House of Representatives. Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) has introduced yearly resolutions to create a commission tasked with studying the lingering effects of slavery and considering all “appropriate remedies.” Support for that resolution has diminished, not strengthened with time.

Conyer’s 1999-2000 resolution was co-sponsored by some 48 of his colleagues, while his most recent resolution received backing from just two, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio).

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