Politics and Government

When Reparations Begin at Home

Evanston Alderman Ciceley Fleming (Evanston Now Photo)

By Jade Boone

Evanston Alderman Ciceley Fleming, a sixth-generation Black resident of the Illinois city and a strong advocate for defunding the local police department, was a dissenting voice and the only vote against what many hailed as a landmark local reparations bill.

The legislation, which would provide grants of up to $25,000 to assist Black folks who had been victims of discrimination in buying and maintaining homes, was being rushed to a vote just two weeks ahead of the local elections, she complained. And the plan would be financed by hoped-for revenues from a 3-percent tax on sales at the single cannabis store in town.

It was, she said, “a housing plan dressed up as reparations.”

True reparations, Fleming argued, would grant recipients the funds outright to do with as they would, not to spend only on something decided by someone else. “This practice is based on a White paternalistic narrative that Black folks are unable to manage their own monies,” Fleming told her Council colleagues.

“This isn’t change that can be a beacon for the nation. It is a dim, weak light.,” she said. “And it will be a travesty for Black communities around the US if it becomes our model going forward.”

The Council passed the measure on an 8-1 vote in late March. Less than a month later, the House Judiciary Committee voted 25-17, strictly along party lines, to send a national reparations study bill to the House floor.

“Here we are today, marking up for the first time in the history of the United States of America any legislation that deals directly with the years and centuries of slavery of African American people who are now the descendants of those Africans,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat and the lead sponsor of the measure.

“We’re asking for people to understand the pain, the violence, the brutality, the chattel-ness of what we went through,” Lee said. “And of course, we’re asking for harmony, reconciliation, reason to come together as Americans.”

President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all support passage of the bill, which would establish a study panel to consider if, why and how the U.S. government would distribute reparations, but not necessarily authorize or appropriate any payments.

Most Americans, 65 percent, say they oppose paying money to Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, and while Democrats are near equally divided on the issue, two-thirds of Black adults surveyed are supportive of reparations, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found. Such partisan sentiments were apparent during the mark-up session.

“Spending $20 million in taxpayer money to reach a conclusion you already know what it’s going to be. Look, everyone knows how evil slavery was, wrong as wrong can be. But this is not something we should be passing,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who is the committee’s ranking minority member.

“Reparations is divisive,” said Rep. Burgess Owens, a Utah Republican and a descendant of slaves. “It speaks to the fact that we are a hapless, hopeless race that never did anything but wait for White people to show up and help us—and it’s a falsehood. It’s demeaning to my parents’ generation.”

The bourgeoning national concerns over systemic racism have boosted the case for addressing inequities that many consider deeply rooted slavery in America. At the same time, however, there are divided opinions on what responsibility the U.S. government should have in repairing the breach, and how.

At a hearing on the proposal two years ago, then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said he didn’t think “reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for which none of us living are responsible, is a good idea.”

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates countered. “We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance,” Coates testified. “It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.” His 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” renewed focus on the issue.

Some reparations advocates argue that because there was slavery in America before there was a United States of America, the federal government’s liability should be limited.

“Since the claim for redress must be made on the U.S. government, the beginning date for the claim must be associated with the founding of the Republic [1776], not the landing of enslaved persons at Jamestown, Virginia [1619],” William A. Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen, authors of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” wrote in The Grio.

It also is not clear who would have a legitimate claim to post-slavery reparations from a post-Civil War U.S. government–a question that was more easily answered in Evanston because at issue was a local initiative based on specific wrongdoing during a particular period of time.

The Evanston program “identifies eligible applicants as Black or African American persons having origins in any of the Black racial or ethnic groups of Africa” as long as those persons “reside in Evanston at the time of disbursement of funds,” according to an official city website.

“The strongest case for reparations by the City of Evanston is in the area of housing,” the government says, “where there is sufficient evidence showing the City’s part in housing discrimination as a result of early City zoning ordinances in place between 1919 and 1969, when the City banned housing discrimination.

Darity and Mullen, who suggest that the eligibility date for U.S. government reparations be changed from 1619 to 1776, contend that applicants would need to show that they have “at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States” and that they “self-identified as Black, Negro or an equivalent on an official document for at least 12 years” before the program came into being.

When reparations for formerly enslaved persons in several Southern states was first proposed near the end of the Civil War, nearly all of the Black people in those states and the rest of the nation as well were descendants of Africans brought to America against their will. That is less so today.

Now, immigrants make up an estimated 10 percent of the current Black population in the United States, a ten-fold increase over the share half a century ago. Most are persons or descendants of people from the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, and they could be ineligible for reparations from the U.S. government under the guidelines Darity and Mullen suggest. By their rationale, any redress from racial injustices visited upon those persons, including slavery, should be the obligation of the former colonizers in those lands, not the government of the United States.

Yet, some contend that many of the worst aspects of contemporary Black life in America are rooted in systemic racism which in turn is a vestige of slavery in the United States, and those things affect people not because of their country of origin, but the color of their skin.

Most Black immigrants in the United States live in Black communities, for instance, and cannot escape problems that disproportionately affect those communities, said Fordham University political science professor Christina M. Greer.

“Those communities are hyper-surveilled, overpoliced. What some people would just argue is not a big deal—‘It’s just a stop and frisk,’ or ‘It’s just a quick search for some marijuana’—can turn into an ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] arrest and completely upend a family and a community,” she said on NPR’s Code Switch podcast. Black immigrants are 10 percent of the nation’s undocumented immigrants, but account for 20 percent of those deported.

“There’s a really specific anti-Blackness that is part of the fabric of this nation that Black immigrants get caught up in, because they’re with Black Americans, because of residential segregation, because of educational segregation,” said Greer, author of  “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream.”

Darity agreed, to a point. “There is no question that all Black people are weighted by the freight of American White supremacy,” he said on the podcast. “But the degree to which people are freighted by that is somewhat different.”

Many fault disparities in wealth between Black and White families as the most notable indicator of the lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and ongoing discrimination. “The typical White family has eight times the wealth of the typical  Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family,” the Federal Reserve reported last year.

“Home ownership is important because it is the most common way in America to build wealth,” Andre M. Perry, author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Properties in America’s Black Cities,” said. 

“For reparations to close the racial wealth gap, some form of housing subsidy must be included. Homes tend to appreciate over time, which provides an engine for intergenerational accumulation. And housing investments yield other investments, such as those in better schools and infrastructure,” Perry, along with University of Maryland sociology professor Rayshawn Ray,  wrote in The Washington Post.

“Racial disparities didn’t just involve discrimination on the part of the federal government, and the federal government isn’t the only entity that must pay its moral debt to Black people and society. Evanston’s answer is not perfect or final,” the two concluded. “It’s just the beginning.”

May 5, 2021

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Milton Coleman