Monday, June 24, 2019

Prof. Miller Tesitfies on HR40 and the Path to Restorative Justice Before House Judiciary Subcommittee

Professor Eric Miller testified the following during the House Judiciary Committee Hearing on HR40 and the Path to Restorative Justice held Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Read his prepared remarks below or watch the recording of the testimony.

I will speak to my experience as an academic studying the issue of reparations and a lawyer representing the victims of the Tulsa massacre of 1921 in a reparations lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa. In the short time available, I want to make the following points:

1. Local, state and federal governments were active perpetrators of race-targeted discrimination against, and domination of, African-Americans during slavery and Jim Crow.

2. These governmental institutions engaged in the massive social, political, economic, and cultural destruction of African American communities and individuals.

3. Many of the perpetrators and victims of race-targeted state action are readily identifiable through a thorough investigation of existing historical records in the hands of public and private institutions.

4. The race based disparities brought about by federal, state, and local government discrimination remain baked into our governmental institutions as well as the persistently segregated private social ordering those institutions brought about.

5. Reparations addresses the ways in which these institutions entrenched race-based discrimination and domination throughout American social, cultural, economic, and political institutions.

6. The committee should consider specific legal remedies to remove the time-limited bars against litigation, which are the major impediment preventing the identifiable victims of extraordinary race-targeted state action to sue state and federal governments for financial damages.

7. Reparations must also include rebuilding the social political economic and cultural infrastructure of the communities destroyed by the state.

8. Without social, cultural, and political reparations, race neutral programs of economic uplift will preserve the relative social and political disadvantage, domination, and disempowerment of African Americans across this nation.

The urgent need for the HR40 Commission, and reparations as the path to restorative justice for the victims’ state-sponsored racial injustice, became clear to me in 2003. That is when I joined the Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group of lawyers led by Charles Ogletree and Adjoa Aiyetoro. Our legal team filed suit representing the more than one-hundred still living survivors of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Massacre of 1921.

Some historical context is in order. On May 30, 1921, some African Americans mobilized to stop a lynching in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In response, white citizens, deputized by the police and aided by the state national guard, burned down the thirty-five city blocks of Greenwood, a thriving African American residential and business district in Tulsa. Up to three-hundred African Americans died in the massacre and ensuing fire. Overnight, five thousand African Americans became homeless. Three thousand terrorized people fled the city. The rest were rounded up and held under guard for days at the local baseball park and fairground. The Red Cross had to mobilize to provide tents for the thousands who remained.

The City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma moved quickly to suppress news of the massacre. Survivors were terrorized into silence. All mention of it was excised from official accounts of Oklahoma history. The details of the massacre only became public in 2003, after the State of Oklahoma formed an HR40-style Commission, including historians, lawyers, and activists, to report on the massacre. The commission's painstaking search through the historical record discovered much previously unavailable material. The commission apportioned financial damages, and proposed that reparations be paid to the survivors and descendants. When the state refused to make good on those recommendations, we filed a lawsuit trying to complete the process begun by the Commission. The only impediment to our success, the courts acknowledged, was a rule requiring the survivors to file any lawsuit within two years of the massacre. These statutes of limitations are the major impediment to many reparations lawsuits.

The Tulsa experience demonstrates that the harms of slavery and segregation scar our communities to this day. The City and State dismantled, economically, politically, and culturally, a specific community: African Americans in Tulsa. Subsequent generations of Greenwood residents have labored under social and political disempowerment whilst trying to rebuild their community. Whilst a monetary payment would count as a beginning, economic justice is not enough without racial justice to repair the specific race-based wrongs of the Tulsa massacre and its aftermath. To quote Harvard Law Professor and reparations activist, Professor Charles Ogletree, “Reparations are more than an exercise in education, remembrance, and apology. Reparations demand the political, social, and economic power and equality for African Americans that has been stifled and suppressed in America since its inception.”

Accordingly, I urge Congress to pass HR40 as a first, vital step on the path to acknowledging and accounting for the history of race-targeted discrimination and wrongdoing that has marked too much of this nation's history. It is time that the federal government joined the states, municipalities, universities and other organizations investigating the invidious legacy of slavery and segregation so as to remedy the continuing impact of state-sponsored political, social, and economic disempowerment of African Americas in this country.

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