By Hannah Critchfield 9-30-2016

On Sept. 28, the Senate overturned President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow victims of Sept. 11, 2001 — meaning anyone who has experienced injury, death, or damage as a result of the terror attacks on that day — to sue Saudi Arabia for any involvement they might have had in the terror attacks. Obama disagreed strongly with the decision to proceed with the bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, calling it “a mistake” and “a dangerous precedent.” To date, though 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi nationals, the government of Saudi Arabia has no proven connections to Sept. 11.

Juxtapose that with the release one day prior of a U.N.-affiliated report concluding that the United States owes reparations to African Americans for a history of “racial terrorism.” The study was conducted by the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which presented its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Sept. 27.

The panel specifically highlighted the impact of lynching, comparing it to terror: 

“Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the United States must address. Thousands of people of African descent were killed in violent public acts of racial control and domination and the perpetrators were never held accountable.”

The idea of reparations for the black community in America is not new. This report suggested a variety of avenues for reparations, including a formal apology, provision of educational opportunities, psychological rehabilitation, and financial support. But the document is in no way legally binding, and few expect the United States government to pay much attention.

In fact, despite decades of calls for this form of tangible, national recognition, the idea of reparations has never been seriously embraced in the political sphere.

Every year since 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has introduced a bill known as HR 40 — the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act to Congress. The bill would establish a commission to research the financial and psychological impact of slavery and discrimination of black people from 1691 to the present, and propose appropriate remedies from their findings. Every year, it stalls.

In contrast, the JASTA terror bill was first proposed to the Senate a year ago, and on Wednesday received enough support in Congress to easily override the President’s veto — the first override in his presidency.

Though many fear that terrorism bill could open the United States up to similar legal suits from other countries, it would not enable domestic citizens to take the U.S. government to court — the bill only applies to foreign bodies, and only for acts of terror committed on or after 9/11.

Recent polls show that 68 percent of black Americans think the government should provide monetary reparations to descendants of slaves. That this most recent call for reparations, from a global governing body, has largely gone ignored in the same week that Congress gave sweeping support to the JASTA bill suggests to black citizens that the United States government is comfortable pursuing justice for others’ terrorism but less interested in taking responsibility for its own.

This, too, is not without precedent. Abraham Lincoln is commonly praised for ending slavery with his passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but as any good AP U.S. History teacher will tell you, the Proclamation actually only freed slaves living in Confederate territory. In other words, Lincoln only granted freedom to black people living outside his jurisdiction, while the rights of those inside the Union were ignored. The Emancipation Proclamation was largely a strategic move, motivated more by concerns about weakening Confederate resources and boosting Union morale than by actual moral conviction.

Until reparations become strategic, it seems, it is unlikely that the government will endorse them on a national level. And maybe that begins with us. In the same aforementioned poll, only 15 percent of white Americans support reparations. Why the difference?

Until we can answer that question, we are left grappling with a situation described poignantly by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

“Indeed, in America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”

If we want holistic justice, we must look inward. If we want healing, we must do the hard work of providing treatment to all our people. We cannot stop three-fifths of the way.

Hannah Critchfield is a freelance journalist covering the intersection of religion, gender, and political movements and the Development Assistant at National Women's Law Center.

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