After more than 200 years, reparations for slavery in Detroit? Wheels are starting to turn.

August 12, 2021, 6:00 AM by  Nancy Derringer

Ask the average person what “reparations” means in the current debate over whether, and how, Black people might be compensated for 246 years of slavery in the United States, and the answer might boil down to something like this:

White America, through some mechanism yet to be determined, is being asked to write checks to Black America.

Demonstrators in Minneapolis march for economic justice in 2020. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue/Creative Commons)

What Todd Perkins, and others in the modern reparations movement, are pushing for is more complicated.

Of course that explanation is oversimplified. So many issues go along with the question of reparations, starting with the simplest: Who is Black? Who should pay? How should they pay? How should the work of centuries past be valued? Which may be why almost all discussion of reparations hasn’t gone much further than that – a discussion.

But in recent months, the needle has started to move on reparations at an unexpected level of government -- American cities.

In March this year, the city council in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., approved a plan to pay up to $25,000 per household for down payments on housing or home repairs. The money pool will be funded by new revenues from the sale of marijuana. In Asheville, N.C., a similar program, also tied to promoting homeownership as well as business development, was approved in July.

And in Detroit, early discussions have started on how a reparations program here might be funded and administered, with similar aims – not direct payments, but to launch and support programs that help Blacks build wealth and start a conversation about how slavery, Jim Crow and racism held them back for centuries.

“For me, reparation is more about the acknowledgement that we were harmed,” said Lauren Hood, a consultant and member of a working group on the subject convened by City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield. “There’s lots of psychological benefit to just saying, ‘Sorry, Black folks, we did you wrong.’”

Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield (File photo)

Hood pointed to Georgetown University, which made a public declaration based on information about the sale of 272 enslaved individuals in 1838. The sale generated $115,000 at the time, about $3 million in today’s dollars, a sum that was used to stabilize the school, which was struggling with debt. In March, the university announced a new foundation that will serve the descendants of those 272 people, in various ways.

In Detroit, she said, some businesses and institutions practiced racial discrimination in the past -- hospitals where Blacks were only treated in the basement, factories where they were given the most dangerous and difficult tasks. “Lots of institutions are still standing that have a racially problematic history.”

Her point is not that those places should start writing checks, but rather, consider how they might right their wrongs with better health care, scholarship funds and the like.

“Maybe we shouldn’t call it reparations,” said Sheffield. “But we need to start having these conversations.”

Sheffield brought up a well-known case of direct race-based harm in Detroit, in the destruction of the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods, beginning in the late 1950s, done in the name of “urban renewal.” That didn’t happen in the 19th century, but within the lifetime of many people alive today. But beyond payment for property, which didn’t begin to cover the loss, those affected received nothing.

“I think people automatically think ‘free money,’ but no one is talking about direct cash payments,” Sheffield said.

Show who what money? 

Grounding reparations at the city level also brings up an interesting conundrum: In an overwhelmingly black city like Detroit, where will the money come from, and will it amount to Blacks paying their own reparations?

Todd Perkins: "Words without action are meaningless." (Courtesy photo)

Not exactly, said Todd Perkins, an attorney who wants to use new cannabis revenues to fund community enrichment similar to that in other communities – small business development, educational outreach, etc. He’s been gathering signatures for a petition to clear the way for residents to vote directly on appropriating city money for reparations, prohibited in the current city charter. It’s fitting to use this new revenue stream, given that Blacks endured disproportionate harm from drug prosecution, when marijuana was illegal.

But even though many white Detroiters and suburbanites may end up paying marijuana-based taxes in the city, many of those funds will come out of the pockets of Black people themselves. Still, he and others say, it’s a start. The movement will never get off the starting blocks until someone starts running.

“How it actually gets implemented” is far down the road, Perkins said. But “words without action are meaningless. We have to align those resources and start thinking of what we want and can do.” Business development, education and training and other possibilities can all be on the table.

For now, the Detroit effort stands at two different points. Perkins’ petition drive collected enough signatures that once certified, voters can decide whether they want to allow citizen voting on Detroit appropriations, an arcane but necessary first step. And Sheffield and the Detroit City Council have voted on a resolution to ask for voter support for a study commission, another process far distant from actual reparations being made.

But they’re necessary, Perkins said.

“This is how you deal with race honestly,” he said. “We’re still broken.”

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