The idea of reparations for Black Americans made rounds this year, including a stop here in Detroit after voters approved a 2022 ballot proposal to establish a committee to examine the issue.
The Detroit City Council appointed 13 members to a task force, which is charged with examining housing and economic development initiatives.
The move came on the heels of a nationwide discussion of how to compensate Black Americans for the discriminatory practices that have impeded their individual and collective progress since slavery. California’s task force proposed 115 policy and law recommendations that can be adopted or dismissed through a long channel of political process. Evanston, Illinois, the first US city to pay reparations, elected to distribute $400,000 to eligible black households. Payment will be in the form of home repair or down payment assistance through the city’s commitment of $10 million over ten years.
It was stated early on that financial payouts weren’t part of the plan for Detroit. Instead, it was to look at long and short-term goals that would address systemic racism and discrimination that has negatively impacted Black Detroiters. Those things are rooted in personal decisions and practices more than the presence of laws and policies to prevent such.
That sounds good but should not be necessary in a city that is still predominately Black. Basic opportunities and support to residents should be given, and the city already touts programs that promise housing repair and downpayment assistance. But homeownership, maintenance, and money management are also needed to prevent financial failure and hardship.
The task force had been relatively quiet until two of its members abruptly resigned, prompting a check on their status and progress. Statements by the two resigning members were vague and offered no real insight into the reason for their departure or what’s next for them in this space.
A website and regular updates were promised, leading up to an 18-month deadline for a formal proposal. Instead, there is a landing page on the City of Detroit’s website with contact information that includes a Gmail address and lists the City Council chambers as its location.
The recently resigned members are still listed, as is JoAnn Watson, former City of Detroit Councilmember who served as an Executive Committee task force member. Dr. Watson died in July.
I reached Keith Williams, chair of the task force, who offered his assessment. While disappointed with the resignations, he said the team remains committed and uncompromised. “We are in partnership with the University of Michigan to do a Harms Report,” said Williams. “Expected in May or June, it will assess the damage to Black people in health, housing, health and policing.”
I asked what they hoped to discover that they don’t already know and see daily. Williams says the answer lies in a new economic system where black people can participate. “Another form of Black Bottom—a Reparations Zone,” Williams said.
But Detroit is still predominately Black, I reminded him.
“Yes, we are a Black city at 85% but one that is occupied, where we have no real control in business or politics,” said Williams. “We need a comprehensive plan that benefits the next generation.”
The formal findings will shape the requests and recommendations for Detroit’s council and mayor, including an apology from the leadership.
That sounds good, but one must wonder what real impact that can have. “It’s a start. We are trying to address 400 years within 18 months,” he said. “We have the talent and are committed to getting the job done.”
It is a herculean task that still has a slightly unrealistic feel to it. There is no formula to accurately assess or calculate the generational economic impact of systemic and institutionalized racism and discrimination. And no matter how well they are written, no policy will supersede personal practice, and laws don’t change a person’s heart.