Reparations for bias and slavery gains momentum

Keep your eye on Evanston, Ill., which this week became the first U.S. city to make reparations available to its Black residents through home loan repairs or down payments on property.

Reparations – financial amends for discrimination and slavery – is among the most controversial of social programs sought by progressives.

Evanston's City Council made it real with a revolving $400,000 fund for qualifying residents. Qualifiers have lived in or been a direct descendant of a person who lived in the Chicago suburb between 1919 and 1969 and who suffered discrimination in housing because of city ordinances, policies or practices against Blacks.

The program will be underwritten through donations and revenue from a 3% tax on the sale of recreational marijuana. The goal is distribution of $10 million in 10 years in chunks of up to $25,000 per household.

In this age of me-first, it is stunning to see some Americans willing to acknowledge with public policy that we of current generations owe something to those who had suffered not only through slavery but decades of approved and formalized discrimination.

Getting policy approved for the elimination of unfair poverty and bias deserves celebration. And the discussion itself feels important, which should inspire us to learn how we got to this point.

So far, these entities are considering providing reparations in some form:

  • California cities
  • Amherst, Mass.
  • Providence, R.I.
  • Asheville, N.C.
  • Iowa City, Iowa
  • Georgetown and Brown universities
  • the Episcopal Church
  • the Jesuit order

Congress is once again debating a federal reparations study, an idea stagnant for decades. President Joe Biden has offered support, unlike the Former Guy, who rejected the whole concept of acknowledging institutional racism in America.

Practical discussion of reparation programs started taking off after last summer's Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The arguments for and against are not always straightforward. Debates range from how much the history of slavery is worth to whether reparations are paid to individuals or communities to is there such a thing as payments for historical ill-worth.

Even among Black Americans, programs are seen as paternalistic or segregating. Some ask whether investment in overturning centuries of housing discrimination will make a wide difference in the lives of Black communities that badly trail the ability to build wealth and share fully in the American Dream.

Agreement on Need, Not Payment

Even in Evanston, population 73,000, the liberal home of Northwestern University, debate over how to approach reparations has yielded unusual splits.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, an architect of the measure, told The Washington Post, "It is the reckoning.

"We're really proud as a city to be leading the nation toward repair and justice."

But the details show disagreement among officials, residents and activists for racial equity. There was debate about using money for housing grants and mortgage assistance rather than cash payments to individuals. Housing grants are targeted to residents who can show that they or their ancestors were victims of redlining and other discriminatory practices. No one knows exactly how many people that might mean or how to show it.

Another alderman, Cicely L. Fleming, voted no. She said, "I 100 percent support reparations. What I can't support is a housing program being termed as reparations."

In a noteworthy 2014 Atlantic article author Ta-Nehisi Coates used Chicago area neighborhoods to lay out the case for reparations to rebalance the wealth lost by the generations surviving slavery who were made subject to continuing waves of mortgage redlining and discriminatory practices that met with official urban approval over decades. The article helped to update and focus on practical calls for reparation for centuries of bias, and, like others mentioned below, offers loads of scholarly references for learning.

"Chicago's impoverished black neighborhoods—characterized by high unemployment and households headed by single parents—are not simply poor; they are ecologically distinct," he argued. Chicago was not alone. he said.

Carefully exploring sociological studies, he outlined the case that while the daily lives of Black Americans had improved, Black neighborhoods still suffer demonstrably worse performance in income, health, environment, poverty, teen pregnancy and lack of education, among other measures. Wrestling publicly with reparations as policy, he said, "matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced...

"More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America's maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders."

A 2020 Brookings Institution study traced much of the economics, finding that the racial wealth gap resulted from a lack of financial capital to provide improvements in social services. It said, "Wealth is positively correlated with better health, educational, and economic outcomes. Furthermore, assets from homes, stocks, bonds, and retirement savings provide a financial safety net for the inevitable shocks to the economy and personal finances that happen throughout a person's lifespan."

The study argued for reparations aimed at improving neighborhoods.

Last summer, New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, the force behind the paper's 1619 Project, argued that the natural resolution of issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests must be reparations.

"The process of creating the racial wealth chasm begins with the failure to provide the formerly enslaved with the 40 acres they were promised," one interviewee told her. "So, the restitution has never been given, and it's 155 years overdue."

What's Ahead

Congress has before it H.R. 40, last considered in 2019. It refers to the Civil War-era broken promise to give former slaves "40 acres and a mule." Under the bill, $12 million would be spent to establish a commission to study the history of slavery and discrimination and create a proposal for remedies.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., took up the yearly cause from the late John Conyers, D-Mich., to create the 13-member commission. House subcommittees have retold the stories of slavery in an attempt to win the day. California Secretary of State Shirley Weber who guided a parallel state law as a California assemblywoman to establish a task force to study reparations for descendants of enslaved people argued that the federal government should follow suit.

UCLA School of Law professor E. Tendayi Achiume, an expert in international human-rights law, added that while popular conceptions of reparations tended to be relatively narrow and focus only on financial compensation, the international system emphasizes a more comprehensive approach that may also include transforming political, economic and social institutions.

Opponents have included Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) and former football star Herschel Walker, a Donald Trump supporter, who argued that reparations are divisive.

"Reparations teach separation. Slavery ended over 130 years ago. How can a father ask his son to spend prison time for a crime he committed?" Walker told the committee.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in 2019 he believed reparations aren't a "good idea", and "No one currently alive was responsible for that."

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator, also rejected the idea last year: "I don't think reparations help level the playing field — it might help more eruptions on the playing field."

It would appear that consideration reparations are starting to kick into a higher gear. We should help.