Calls for reparations for slavery and racism in America continue with the proposal HR 40 still being debated in Congress and new calls for President Joe Biden to authorize a commission to study the issue. To shed some light on what’s going on, Blavity spoke exclusively with Dreisen Heath, racial justice researcher and advocate within the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, about how colonialism and slavery continue to impact America and the multifaceted approach that’s needed for reparations and repair in this country.

Survivors of colonialism and enslavement

The involvement of Human Rights Watch in the debate over reparations may be new for some people who see human rights conversations as focused on abuses and wrongs that have occurred in other countries. For Heath, who is a leading voice in the organization’s work focused on the United States, American history demands the same kind of scrutiny given to other countries.

Throughout our history, Heath argued, “egregious human rights violations against Black people and people of African descent” have and continue to be committed. The list, she rattled off, includes “enslavement, lynching, Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, highway construction, gentrification, medical malpractice and other harms resulting from more recent policies and practices that continue to harm Black people today.”

Because of the “multifaceted and complex” nature of injustice against Black Americans, a multipronged approach is required, Heath argued, including “efforts at the federal level and coalition-building from the ground up.” Beyond local and federal efforts, she pointed out, principles and processes from international law are extremely relevant to the U.S.

Just as other countries have dealt with the harm created by conflict, sexual violence, land dispossession and other injustices inflicted by European colonialism, the United States “has been a colonial state, a settler-colonial state” that has inflicted similar harm on Black people for centuries. Heath likened the movement for reparations in the U.S. to the campaign against South African apartheid in the later 20th century. Just like that sustained campaign, “it’s going to take a national, international global movement as well to realize reparations at all levels.”

Identity and inclusive activism

As a young Black woman taking up a cause that has been debated for generations, Heath is both aware of the work of those who came before her and the need for current generations to continue the fight. “I’m a student of the reparations movement,” she said of herself, adding that she had studied the actions, tactics, successes and failures of past and present reparations advocates.

While drawing from the past, she is also adamant that the involvement of young people today is crucial for the movement’s success. “Every substantive change we’ve had in this country has been intergenerational,” Heath said. “I need the generations before me and they need me.”

Heath also remarked on the legacy and challenges that being a Black woman brought to advocacy work. “Black women have been central to every political movement,” she noted, while also observing that the contributions of Black women are often erased from these accounts due to deep-rooted biases. “Black women are constantly navigating patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, racism, you name it.” Overcoming these challenges, however, is an opportunity to “inspire other people to be involved in this movement.”

A multifaceted approach to repairing harm

Because Heath believes that action is required at the international, national and local levels, she sees various efforts toward reparations are complementary. “We’re fighting for reparations on all fronts, which requires concurrent pushes,” she explained. At the national level, she urged Congress to pass HR 40, the bill that has been proposed annually since 1989, that would create a commission to study the enduring impact of slavery and racism in the U.S. and explore potential options for redress.

With the bill’s support in Congress stronger than ever, she sees continuing efforts to stall the bill as representing the worst kind of partisan politics. “People really need to question the federal government,” Heath said. “When there’s a bill that has 195 cosponsors and additional votes for the bill to pass and for the government to [still] not pass it.” In the face of such obstructionism in Washington, Heath declared that “there should be massive uproar” from the public and demands to know “why the bill is being purposely stalled.”

In the face of such obstructionism in Congress, Heath also backs a recent call for Biden to use executive action to create a commission to study the effects of enduring systemic racism and possible responses to address the continuing harms. “We have commissions for everything under the sun,” she noted, criticizing the Biden administration’s claims that such a commission is unnecessary and can be skipped in favor of equity policies.

An authentic and comprehensive reparations process

Heath clarified reparations “is not ordinary public policy,” nor are reparations efforts “synonymous with racial equity” initiatives such as those promoted by the current administration. “If policy was enough,” she questioned, “why do we have the largest racial wealth gap since the 1960s” when landmark civil rights legislation was passed?

Instead, she argued, the country needs to continue to pursue equity policies while also actively examining and repairing the harm that has been and continues to be inflicted by past and present policies of racial violence, oppression and discrimination. While such efforts to repair damage should happen at the local and institutional level as well as larger national efforts, Heath expressed some skepticism at current efforts by private institutions such as churches and universities to implement their own reparations policies.

“It’s encouraging that we’re seeing all of these institutions take steps” toward redressing their past wrongs, Heath conceded, before pointing out that many of these efforts are being dictated by the very institutions that profited from slavery and oppression rather than being driven by those who have been harmed by these institutions and their practices. “Only survivors and descendants of atrocities and crimes should be dictating what the repair is,” Heath declares as her standard for authentic reparations. “The perpetrators don’t get to dictate to the people what their reparations are.”

Finally, Heath explained that reparations should not only be defined in terms of “financial compensation” but should additionally include various types of systemic change that focus on physical and psychological harms. Such policies, she argued, range from reallocating land to Black farmers and returning personal artifacts to Black families to truth-telling processes and renewed education about our country’s past. “We’re not just talking about one element or another because we need it all,” Heath explained. “The whole entire menu is what needs to be ordered.”