Detroit — Four months after more than 80% of voters approved creating a reparations commission, Detroiters now have a two-week window to weigh in on who should help determine how to address what many say is a legacy of governmental systemic racism in the nation’s largest majority-Black city.
The task force is supposed to develop short-, mid- and long-term recommendations within the next year to address the creation of generational wealth and boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community.
A steering committee has studied what other major cities are doing across the country to help inform Detroit’s approach. But some Detroit civil rights leaders are skeptical a new group will be able to successfully implement what they couldn’t accomplish in the past several decades.
The survey, which will be available on the city’s website until March 10, addresses some controversial issues.
Among them: Should serving on the commission be limited to Detroit residents alone, or should expertise from outside the city be welcomed? Should members be solely African Americans? And if the commission is limited to Detroiters, how many years should they have been required to live in Detroit to be eligible and what experience or background should they have?
More than 130 people joined the task force’s first virtual meeting with four City Council members Thursday, and many expressed that the committee should be comprised of native Detroiters who are stakeholders in the city.
Janis Hazel said she worked for the late Detroit Congressman John Conyers and helped draft H.R. 40, the successor to legislation first introduced by Conyers that would create a 15-person commission to study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States. It is intended to develop “appropriate remedies” based on its findings and would also consider a national apology for the harm caused by slavery.
She argued the committee should not be open to outsiders, even historians.
“They should be Detroiters who are stakeholders in the city,” Hazel said. “We have brilliant minds here at Wayne State, at Marygrove, and I can help as I helped write the federal bill.”
Resident Denise Lyles suggested there should be subcommittees of the task force to accommodate many people who are interested in serving, including non-Black allies.
“I don’t think it should be limited to (longtime) Detroiters,” Lyles said, insisting people who moved away and then back to the city should also be eligible for appointment. “But I think they should currently live here and, if possible, be homeowners because it’s owed to people who stuck it out when Detroit wasn’t fashionable.”
A task force residency rule
There were a handful of residents under the age of 30 who asked for the committee not to require homeownership or a specific number of years of residency because it would prohibit some younger people from participating on the committee.
City Council President Mary Sheffield sponsored a resolution in June in support of the city ballot initiative that was ultimately led by the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus.
Sheffield told The Detroit News she will continue to support the idea without directing the resident-led effort.
“I was very adamant about this being a community-driven thing and so we don’t even want to create how we select the people or what the criteria are. We want the community to decide that,” said Sheffield, adding several people have expressed interest to her office.
Ultimately, the community will decide how many members the commission will have and how they will be selected, she said.
Lauren Hood, chairwoman of the Detroit City Planning Commission, worked with Sheffield’s staff to develop the analysis on the reparations task force. Hood said one of the biggest challenges is “trying to give reparations the sacred space that it deserves.”
She told The News reparations are necessary to undo generations of disinvestment in marginalized communities, and correct longstanding trauma that Black residents still hold on to today.
“It needs to be an effort that exists in perpetuity to address racial disparities, but also, there’s political pressure to do something now,” Hood said. “My concern is that we could cut a check next year, but that check could be far smaller than the reward that we could have gotten if we took longer to investigate and be intentional about it.”
The city’s Legislative and Policy Division was instructed by a steering committee, including Hood and Sheffield, to compare similar processes of reparation committees formed in North Carolina, Illinois and California.
Similar to reparation initiatives in other cities, Detroit is focused on addressing issues around housing and economic development. Hood said the task force hopes to have recommendations before the City Council within the next couple of months.
“We need to do something now because I feel like people might lose hope if they don’t see something happen in the near term, but we also need to be planning for something that’s sustained over a longer period of time,” Hood said.
The information collected from Thursday’s meeting will be publicly available for digital engagement for two weeks. Then, Sheffield’s staff will craft a proposal from that information for the City Council and a subsequent resolution. Any plan needs the approval of the City Council.
“Detroit is the Blackest big city in the nation. Eight out of every 10 people here are due some sort of reparation,” Hood said. “Can you imagine how the landscape of the city might change socially, economically, spiritually, if we actually get what we’re owed?”
It’s unclear who makes up the 20% of residents who voted against the proposal in November, but Hood said she assumed it was maybe newcomers to the city or non-Black residents.
“What I have found is that a lot of the resistance comes from Black folks who are prideful about their own accomplishments and see reparations as a handout that somehow diminishes their own contributions to their success,” she said.
Thursday’s meeting got off to a rough start. The virtual meeting was hacked several times with displays of explicit content, including images of pornography, a video of an organ being eaten from a body and vulgarity. Dozens of residents and elected officials who spoke did so while being interrupted by the distractions.
At one point, Stephen Grady, a spokesman from the Wayne County Executive’s Office, said he was calling the Detroit Police Department’s cybercrime unit. Detroit police did not respond to questions from The News, but Grady said Friday an investigation is being opened by the department.
“It was so inappropriate. I was not going to tolerate (it)…. We can’t have stuff like that,” he said.
Reparations across the nation
Evanston, Illinois, became the first U.S. city in March 2021 to make reparations to its Black residents for the lingering effects of slavery. Its city council voted 8-1 to distribute an initial $400,000 to eligible Black households. Recipients would receive $25,000 for home repairs, mortgage assistance or down payments on property.
The seven-member reparations committee includes three elected council members and four residents. Evanston’s program is funded through donations, revenue from a 3% tax on the sale of recreational marijuana and a commitment from the city to contribute $10 million over 10 years.
A qualifying resident is described as someone who had lived or is a direct descendant of a Black person who lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 and who suffered discrimination in housing due to city ordinances, policies or practices.
California established a task force in September 2020 to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the first reparations bill into law that year.
Shirley Weber wrote the Assembly Bill before she was sworn in as the state’s first Black Secretary of State in January 2021. It created a nine-member commission which hasn’t yet determined who should receive reparations, what form they should take or what amount is appropriate. For months, it has been gathering evidence and weighing proposals.
In comparison, Asheville, North Carolina, created a 25-member commission with 15 people nominated by citizens from historically impacted neighborhoods and 10 others chosen by application.
Detroit may have to conduct similar studies before it submits any recommendations to the City Council; however, Keith Williams, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus, said “Reconciliation will be worth the wait.”
As it’s still in the early stages of forming, ideas of how the task force will be funded have not been solidified, but Williams said they are similarly looking at collecting tax revenue from recreational marijuana.
“The movement around the country is to implement local reparations that address past harm based on zoning ordinances that took a tremendous amount of wealth potential from African Americans,” Williams said. “It’s about how do we put housing and economic development back on the table.”
The Detroit City Council approved its first recreational pot sales ordinance in November 2020, but a federal judge ruled it was likely unconstitutional in June for giving too much preferential treatment to some Detroit residents. The decision stalled the city’s efforts to license recreational pot businesses at a time when the industry is rapidly growing in Michigan. City Council President Pro Tem James Tate introduced a second cannabis ordinance earlier this month to address the judge’s concerns.
The resistance to reparations could be huge, said Dr. Robert Fullilove, professor of sociomedical sciences at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
But when the money used to distribute reparations is created by the citizen’s committee that it represents, it’s a mechanism of great potential, he said, where people use a democratic process to decide what they can or will do for one community.
“I think that has a greater chance of working, of being accepted and actually going from thought to fruition than anything that’s out there now, because all I see is that reparations just go against what courts, and an increasingly conservative nation, are willing to support,” said Fullilove, associate dean of Columbia’s community and minority affairs.
Skeptics will ‘wait and see’
The push for reparations locally and across the country, underway for decades, gained momentum in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.
President Joe Biden expressed support last year for creating a federal commission to study Black reparations.
The Rev. Jim Holley, a civil rights icon and senior pastor of Little Rock Baptist Church for 50 years before retiring last month, said about every 10 years, someone else comes up with a reparation initiative.
“I’m not against it. I’m just not quite sure how they’re basically are going to deal with it in terms of implementing,” said Holley, 78. “I’m not going to discourage it, but I’m waiting to see what can they come up with that we were not able to come up with in the era that we did with John Conyers.”
Holley remembers coming out of the Million Man March in 1995 and Louis Farrakhan trying to mobilize groups to work on reparations.
“It was all about priorities and they still couldn’t come up with it. And they had some of the brightest minds,” Holley said. “They have a right to basically engage and it’s most essential to determine: What do we do to get people out of poverty?”
He told The News that Black Detroiters should be given access to housing, jobs and vehicles through reparations without the resources to maintain them.
“We ought to make sure that we remember what we did do in the past and probably don’t want to repeat it. We need something unique right now,” he said.
While nothing is a guarantee with the committee, Hood said this time is different because “It’s the first time (reparations) made it to the ballot…. But we won’t know if it will be successful. I don’t think there’s any way to know.
“The world is also different now. After George Floyd happened, people even if they were doing it from a more performative place, got more vocal about racial equity and… are taking a step in a direction they haven’t before,” Hood said.
Now, corporations, organizations and governmental bodies have made public declarations around improving racial equity and “That’s a tool we haven’t had before,” she added.
“This is the place, nationally, where reparations could have the biggest impact because so many of us are entitled to it,” she said.
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