The Time for a Federal Reparations Commission is Now

Leslie Hinkson, LCV Chief Officer for Racial Justice and Equity 

At the League of Conservation Voters, we build political power for people and for the planet. Yet, we recognize that an environmentally sustainable future can only stand on a foundation that dismantles the historical and contemporary legacies of racial oppression that the United States was built on. 

To equitably build power and intentionally dismantle and confront structural racism in this country, we believe that the federal government needs to confront the history of slavery and anti-Black racism in America. Reparations are a necessary and long-overdue step toward the racial justice Black people are owed after generations of slavery, systemic racism, and the lasting harm we clearly continue to see through state-sanctioned violence, voter suppression, housing segregation and redlining, environmental injustices and exposure to toxic pollutants, in addition to disproportionately higher mortality and morbidity rates associated with these injustices. 

Last year, for the first time ever, LCV joined a long-standing movement for reparations in solidarity with over 300 organizations calling on Congress to pass H.R. 40, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s (D-TX) bill that would create a commission to study slavery and its lingering impacts on Black communities. We recognize the work of Black activists who have been organizing around this issue for years, such as the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and the National African American Reparations Commission. We also recognize the work of the grassroots organizers and activists on the frontlines of this fight, as well as organizations such as the NAACP, National Action Network, National Council of Churches, Color of Change, Nikkei Progressives and Human Rights Watch, among many others. Ultimately, the commission would make recommendations for appropriate remedies, which could include compensation for the ongoing harm of slavery and racism. We continue to support this bill, but it is also time for the executive branch to take action.

Commemorating the emancipation of enslaved peoples in the United States, the celebration of Juneteenth presents an imperative opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to take actionable steps towards addressing structural racism in our country. That’s why we urge President Biden to sign an executive order to form a commission on reparations as a necessary step towards confronting the U.S.’s legacy of slavery and other state-sanctioned policies and practices post-Emancipation designed to discriminate against and oppress Black people and communities.

Creating this commission would not only be the right thing to do for the country, it will also help President Biden keep faith with the Black community that propelled his rise to the presidency. It would allow him to fulfill his campaign pledge to support a study of reparations at a time when recent polling reveals his support slipping among Black voters, with more than one-third responding that he is not keeping most of his campaign promises. 

If enacted by President Biden, a commission on reparations would study slavery’s tragic legacy. Through extensive consultation with impacted communities, it would look at how failing to address slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and other examples of state-sanctioned discrimination have perpetuated racial disparities between White and Black people, and then it would recommend appropriate redress. 

There is no doubt that addressing environmental injustice would be a significant focus of the commission. Both historically and currently, a significant form of structural violence against the Black community has been through deliberate and disproportionate exposure to air pollution, water contamination, and other environmental toxins. And, as climate change accelerates, we know that Black communities are positioned to feel its effects the hardest. By not addressing this injustice, we continue to remain complicit in a legacy of anti-Blackness that negatively impacts our democracy, our people, and our planet.

Without studying the pervasive legacy of slavery, our country cannot move into a future of equitable access to voting rights or a healthy environment. Though we recognize that past harms cannot be fully undone, reparations would provide a measure of justice owed to Black Americans. We urge Biden to make history by issuing an executive order to create an H.R. 40-style commission on reparations. Add your voice to this call by signing our petition to President Biden asking him to create a commission on reparations.

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