The case for reparations is growing in pockets across the country and at the local level here in Michigan. California created a statewide task force in 2020 that was charged with “studying the institution of slavery and its lingering negative effects on living African Americans, including descendants of persons enslaved in the United States and on society.” City councils in Detroit and Kalamazoo have established similar task forces and are themselves working toward making recommendations to address generational disparities. Gov. Whitmer’s office should work in tandem with the Legislature to establish a similar working group for our state and empower the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Civil Rights to support the task force in meaningful ways. The focus of such a task force should not solely center on financial compensation, but also on tangible ways to root out the structural and institutional aspects of racist and discriminatory policies.
West Coast wades in
There is a growing call for all levels of government to consider how past wrongs have negatively affected past and current American citizens. As this call grows louder and more insistent, it is reaching the ears of the highest level of state government, and in California, even the governor is listening. Gov. Newsom recently acknowledged California’s culpability in American slavery, and this was not performative or political lip service. The state’s task force’s reparations report, which is due to the Legislature by July 1, contains recommendations that will provide guidance for hotly debated topics such as financial restitution and eligibility.
Much attention to this point has been directed to the recommendations for financial compensation. The price tag could be as much as $1.2 million per person and $800 billion overall, with nearly 2 million people eligible to some degree. The recommended remedies include a tiered financial compensation where eligibility is determined based on the number of years a resident was exposed to discrimination. Slavery descendants would receive over $3,000 per year for discriminatory housing policies known as redlining; nearly $14,000 per year to compensate for health disparities between Blacks and whites; and $2,352 per year for the “war on drugs.”
It’s important to note that the task force is also including a list of recommendations that call for change at the policy and practice level in a host of contexts, such as legal, educational, social and medical. California is taking reparations payments seriously, but the task force is also keen to address systemic and structural racism.
The localized push
At the municipal level, last May, Evanston, Illinois, initiated payments of $25,000 to 16 Black residents to compensate for discriminatory housing practices at play between 1919 and 1969. Later, Amherst, Massachusetts’ Town Council established a $2 million reparations fund over the next 10 years to distribute similar payments to descendants of enslaved Blacks. Closer to home, Detroit’s City Council created a task force to provide recommendations to address the harms of systemic racism on Black residents, specifically targeting housing and economic development programs aimed at boosting opportunities for Black residents in Detroit. The Kalamazoo City Council’s reparations task force aims to examine discriminatory practices and the effects they’ve had on residents and hope to spread understanding of how slavery helped public and private businesses that resulted in lasting disparities in Black communities. At the local level in California, San Francisco’s own task force assessed the harm of slavery and assigned a value of $5 million each for eligible victims’ pain and suffering. The response to both the sentiment and the sum of the payout have been mixed, with older San Franciscans being witness to a host of “task forces” that have never produced any sustainable change and a larger group finding the amount of money to be unrealistic in the face of city budget cuts/shortages. The city’s mayor, London Breed, has been noncommittal on the restitution payments, preferring to focus on more practical solutions, like housing subsidies and her “Dream Keeper” initiative, which hopes to invest $60 million into the Black community by way of youth development, arts and culture, and workforce development programs.
Michigan needs to step up
Gov. Whitmer and legislative leaders should take the necessary steps to create a task force here in Michigan. Any future task force should then build on the work in Detroit and Kalamazoo rather than simply beginning to study the problem from a blank slate. The rationale for reparations is clear enough that spending time rehashing the injustices against Blacks from slavery through Jim Crow era policies and modern-day discrimination seems like grandstanding and an unnecessary delay in righting the many wrongs. A Michigan-commissioned group should lead with removing barriers to accessible quality education, employment, housing and capital, which are far too often still denied to most Black people in our state. Merely writing a check, even a large check, minimizes the impact of current structures that inhibit the upward mobility of Black people. Once those barriers are eliminated, investments should then be made to make whole the descendants of enslaved people and, following California’s tiered model, descendants of those who experienced the litany of further discriminatory policies.
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