Cities are considering reparations to pay off slavery debt, but can they?

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“There are both practical and policy reasons why reparations should be attributed to congressional legislation and federal enforcement,” said William A. Darity Jr., professor at Duke and leading reparations specialist. . “It’s just not something that states and communities have the capacity to do.”

The debate over whether and how to right the current wrongs caused by centuries of racial injustice has long focused on the federal government’s responsibility to apologize and pay for national wrongs against black Americans – y including slavery, housing discrimination and racial violence.

Congress has already taken steps to pay off historic debts: more than 82,000 Japanese Americans received checks for $ 20,000 in reparation for their imprisonment in internment camps during World War II. The payments, sent from 1988, were accompanied by letters of apology from President George HW Bush. Other countries have made direct payments to individuals belonging to injured groups, including reparations from Germany for Holocaust survivors and reparations from South Africa for some victims of apartheid.

Academics who advocate similar direct payments for black Americans say the bill would be huge, and something only the federal government would have the capacity to cover.

For example, one way to calculate these payments, according to Darity and fellow researcher A. Kirsten Mullen, might be to close the racial wealth gap faced by black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. Darity said this group makes up about 13% of the country’s population while owning only 2.5% of its wealth, and closing the gap would cost at least $ 10-12 trillion, several times the $ 3 trillion. dollars that the combined city and state budgets add up. every year.

Even reparation plans that don’t call for individual payments suggest investing billions or billions of billions in black communities and institutions.

Money aside, academics have said national healing requires a national atonement.

Barrymore Anthony Bogues, professor of humanities at Brown University and director of the school’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, said: “Racial slavery was a national historical foundation of American society.

It follows that, as a country, the United States must right a wrong at the center of its identity, said Brown political scientist Juliet Hooker. “How do you realize the promise of an equal democracy that has not been equal to blacks and others in the United States?” ” she said.

But she noted that small communities can also seek justice, especially as federal reparations legislation still faces an uphill battle.

Legislation regarding reparations for black Americans has dragged on in Congress for 30 years, after many decades of compensation campaigns by former slaves and their descendants. Although a bill commissioning a study on the matter, HR 40, won unprecedented support in the House this year thanks to new momentum from activists and slavery scholars, it is unlikely to pass by the GOP-controlled Senate. And regardless of the outcome of the November election, adopting a real policy would be politically difficult and would require settling a myriad of debates on the practical details.

So, in the midst of a clamor for racial justice, the cities are moving forward on their own.

The city council of Asheville, North Carolina, apologized on July 14 for the city’s role in slavery and voted unanimously to “deal with reparations owed to the black community”, in starting with funding programs in predominantly black neighborhoods that support homeownership, housing affordability and employment. A municipal task force on racial equity in Durham, North Carolina, on July 23, called on its city council to create an investment fund to finance local repairs and express support for repairs at the federal level. Late last year, the city of Evanston, Illinois launched an initiative to use taxes generated from recreational marijuana sales to fund services in black communities, which do not ‘have not yet been specified.

Darity said these acts, while necessary, cannot be called reparations.

“It’s important that we make a distinction between stopping harm and compensating people for harm,” he said. The equitable distribution of resources and services, he said, is an essential municipal responsibility.

Elorza acknowledged that Providence and other cities could not make the black community whole for the injustices suffered. Any redress effort, he added, must be a collaborative effort between different levels of government.

But Elorza insisted that cities have a responsibility to act. “Mayors are mobilizing to fill this leadership vacuum left by the federal government,” he said. “As cities, we bear the brunt of failing systems every day and we don’t have the luxury of waiting. “

Providence begins its redress process with conversations about truth and reconciliation throughout the city, offering community members a chance to voice any grievances, starting with colonization and slavery and including current inequalities. . Ultimately, a commission will recommend specific investments in black and indigenous communities.

Elorza said he was open to a range of potential policy responses, from investments in neighborhoods to direct payments.

Scholars and community leaders in Providence have said their city should be held accountable for the harm it has done to blacks and indigenous people.

“Cities and states were an integral part of the Atlantic slave trade,” Bogues said.

A Brown University commission in 2006 documented the role prominent Providence merchants played in the centuries-old transatlantic trade that traded slaves, natural resources, and refined products between Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Some 100,000 of the 600,000 enslaved Africans brought to mainland North America were transported Rhode Island Ships. The same merchants were benefactors of major institutions of Providence, including Brown and the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, both of which were dedicated to exploring their links to slavery.

The researchers said Providence, like other cities, also committed other misdeeds against black citizens, including allowing white mobs in 1824 and 1831 to attack black people and their property. Elorza cited more recent examples: Neglecting the same red-lined communities the federal government has refused loans to and razing black neighborhoods to make way for highways.

Bogues said the recent protests that filled the city streets had held up a mirror to local leaders. “[Protests] raised the responsibilities of communities, or the responsibility of a city towards its black community, ”he said.

Local action could spark national change, said Mark Fisher, a leader of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island. “It won’t be long before you hear the echo in unison across the country for repairs,” he said.

At the very least, the leaders and scholars of Providence have agreed that there is one thing cities can and must do: speak the truth.

“There can be no reconciliation until there is full disclosure of the crime,” said Bishop Jeffery A. Williams of the King’s Cathedral, who moderates the group of African-American ambassadors who lead Providence in its process of truth and reconciliation.

“What interests us is to present an accurate account of the history and the impact. And then we can take a healing step. “


Dasia Moore is the editor-in-chief of Globe Magazine. Email him at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.





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