Researcher Dreisen Heath, an advocate for reparations and the resolution of social and economic injustices, is scheduled to testify at a second hearing on reparations, scheduled for 10 a.m. on Feb. 17 by the House Judiciary Committee.
The first-ever federal hearing on the proposed reparations bill, “HR 40: Exploring the Path to Reparative Justice in America,” took place on Juneteenth, June 19, 2019. More than a year later, a follow-up hearing is planned.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who reintroduced HR 40, the House Resolution 40 reparations bill on Jan. 3, 2019, has not responded to calls for editing changes to the bill.
Back in 1989, former Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan — the longtime sponsor of House Resolution 40 — first proposed a measure calling for a study of reparations. He reintroduced the bill every session until his resignation in 2017. Conyers died on Oct. 27, 2019.
Heath is an assistant researcher-advocate in the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, a New York City-based international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.
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Here are five things to know about Heath and her work.
Heath built a career on correcting social and economic injustices. Before joining Human Rights Watch, she worked as the special assistant to the director and counsel of the Brennan Center’s Washington, D.C. office and was a researcher at the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy (CRESP) at the University of Delaware. She examined emerging community health and education policy, with a particular focus on food insecurity and food access in low-income communities at the local, state and federal level, according to her Human Rights Watch bio. Heath earned a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University.
African Americans today continue to suffer the effects of slavery in the U.S., Heath wrote in response to the first hearing, according to the Human Rights Watch website. “Reparations should be based not just on past harms but on contemporary ones too— the question is how to do so fairly and equitably,” she wrote.
The first hearing examined the H.R. 40 bill, which proposes creating a commission to study the impacts of slavery and make recommendations around “apology and compensation,” she said. “This commission should also serve to examine and seek changes to institutions, notably the criminal justice system, that arguably extend past racist practices by disproportionately targeting Black people.”
After no police officers were directly charged for the killing of 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor, Heath wrote in an article in The Nation that the “outcome shows, once again, how our system of law and law enforcement devalues and discards Black lives.”
Due to the history of police brutality against Black Americans, defunding the police is a reparations issue, according to Heath.
“Police departments across the country have targeted enforcement against Black, brown, and low-income communities, and this aggressive deployment of police has accompanied disinvestment in services and support for these communities that might more effectively reduce crime,” she wrote.
She added, “But most of all, U.S. federal, state, and local governments must substantially reduce the scope of policing to build up new institutions that foster equal opportunity and real public safety. This approach acknowledges that massive investment in policing systems disrupts the enjoyment of rights and access to everyday needs for communities of color. It acknowledges that there are alternatives to policing when dealing with many societal problems currently under police purview.”
While there have been various educational institutions and businesses that have apologized for benefiting from slavery and have created their own reparations programs, reparations need to be made on the federal level, according to Heath.
“Promises to end white supremacy, end systemic racism, and provide racial healing ring deeply hollow if the federal government is not taking steps to advance reparations for slavery, other forms of state-sponsored violence against Black people, and ongoing racial discrimination created by public policy,” Heath said in a Washington Post report.
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Congress can find international examples of reparations when setting up reparations for Black Americans, Heath urged. “Congress can remedy some ongoing harm by enacting laws in accordance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Such laws should address specific injustices, such as eliminating mandatory minimum terms for drug offenses. But they should also ensure an end to discrimination in education, health, and housing for all communities,” Heath wrote.
“The legacy of slavery impacts the lives of millions of African Americans,” she said.