Talk of reparations for African Americans over the country’s history of slavery has moved past conversations into action at the ballot box in Detroit, where the city may join a growing list of others nationwide to embrace the idea.
Activists and at least one of Detroit’s leaders are championing a Nov. 2 proposal that asks whether Michigan’s largest city should form a committee to consider reparations for residents, 77% of whom are Black. The committee eventually could advise ways to address a legacy of government systemic racism in the city, supporters said..
While the scope and details of Proposal R, if approved by voters, are not yet known, proponents say the initiative alone is a flash point for the city.
“Detroit is Ground Zero,” said Todd Perkins, an attorney who founded the People’s Voice, a nonprofit advocating for the proposal’s passage. “Being a predominantly African American city, there’s no better place to start than here.”
While other communities are pushing similar efforts, a victory in a city as large and steeped in civil rights as Detroit “would speak volumes about the fact that it can be a reality for African Americans in America and Americans in general,” Perkins said.
As Election Day nears, his group and others are canvassing neighborhoods and calling voters to generate support for the effort that, if passed, opens the door to exploring how Black residents would be compensated.
There is no organized opposition campaign to Proposal R. Duggan administration officials said the issue is best addressed at the federal level.
Critics of reparations argue such policies are too broad. When the Democratic-led U.S. House passed a form of the late Detroit U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ reparations legislation earlier this year, some opposing Republicans questioned a causal link between slavery and segregation, and the racial inequities of today.
Amid racial reckonings following the Black Lives Matter movement, the death in 2020 of George Floyd, the presidential election and the pandemic’s impact on minorities, supporters said they are optimistic residents will be receptive to what they call a critical first step in a process to redress slavery.
“Once explained, residents have overwhelmingly responded positively to the prospect of establishing a task force to study the need for reparations in Detroit,” said City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, who introduced the language that led to the proposal.
How proposal emerged
Proposal R asks if the council should establish a reparations task force to recommend housing and economic development programs “that address historical discrimination against the Black community in Detroit.”
It does not set steps beyond the group’s formation, including members and timelines for decision, or mandate how any guidance would be enacted.
The proposal emerged when Sheffield, after studying the feasibility of reparations, worked with Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus, which has expressed interest in a ballot issue on compensation.
She envisions a panel that would identify short- and long-term solutions targeting generational wealth, economic mobility and more.
“Ultimately, my sincere hope is that this task force, if approved, will be the catalyst needed to spark conversation and action that leads to real and tangible efforts to repair the damage done to the Black community,” Sheffield said.
Some city officials aren’t convinced about the ballot measure.
While Proposal R is significant and “we are anxious to be part of the national conversation regarding reparations, we as an administration believe that a federal response to that question is necessary,” said Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett.
The city also is focused on addressing issues such as wealth gaps, he said.
“A lot of the things that we have been designing our policies to achieve are part and parcel of the task force,” Mallett said.
The City Council would start a framework to select task force members if the proposal passes, Sheffield said. “There is agreement on the coalition of supporters that the task force be community led, and as such, we as a body plan to empower the task force through autonomy and support.”
It’s possible the body would include nonprofits, businesses, residents and others, said Lauren Hood, who chairs the city Planning Commission and recently helped lead a study group at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History focused on reparations. She also is active with the newly formed Coalition on Reparations Advocacy and Citizen Engagement, or RACE.
Whoever joins would advise what form reparations take, the amount, duration and other aspects, she said. That could mean rallying around a central platform, such as helping overtaxed homeowners and collecting feedback on priorities, Hood said.
“People are going to have different responses,” Hood said, including regaining homes lost to foreclosure. “… Maybe there’s something else we haven’t thought about that can make people whole. So it’s about getting a diverse group of voices at the table.”
Exploring paths to reparations
However the measure unfolds, some voters hope it sparks substantial returns.
Glenda McGadney, 71, who has lived in the city since arriving with her family from Alabama in 1951, attended an open house-style meeting a week ago Friday at the Mama Akua Community House to learn more.
Wearing a Black Lives Matter mask and standing amid African carvings and placards depicting local history, she reflected on having been overtaxed by thousands of dollars, she claimed, for her properties. The chance to avoid more taxation is why she plans to vote yes.
“I’m not sure exactly what the commission wants to do, but I feel like individuals should receive a certain amount of land because land is very valuable,” McGadney said. “And there should be workshops on how to retain and keep the wealth that you already have.”
Some see, however, socialist attempts for remedies that government can’t possibly address.
“Proposal R ‘reparations’ (is) just the new marketing strategy for Socialist control, complete with a shiny new set of shackles for people already oppressed on the democrat plantation,” said David Dudenhoefer, a Republican who lives in the city’s Boston-Edison historic district and once challenged U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.
“Democrats wielding temporary power need to abandon their failed socialist lunacy, and return to pro-American policies that encourage the untethered success of the individual by getting government out of the way of progress and allow individual freedom to flourish — we would all be better off.”
Questions remain about how reparations would materialize.
Advocates say they hope to capture revenue from marijuana sales and regulations, which is why Perkins and People’s Voice urge voters to pass both Proposal R and another ballot measure Nov. 2.
Proposal S, which appears on the ballot after a legal battle, calls for amending a section of the city charter to allow voters to push ordinances that include appropriating money.
Perkins calls it a “gateway” to reparations that empowers voters. “This is democracy in its purest form,” he said. “And for a lot of people, I think it scares them. Particularly politicians who don’t want to be told how to control the purse strings.”
In a recent analysis, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan said the move “could present challenges for the operation of government. It is not clear as to how such citizen-initiated appropriations would fit with current laws as they relate to the timing of elections, the budget and appropriations processes, the prioritization of city spending, and the powers granted to certain branches of government.”
It’s also unclear whether Proposal S violates the state Constitution or state law, said attorney Peter Ruddell, a partner at Honigman LLP. “(The) Michigan Constitution requires a local government to conduct a public hearing prior to approval of its budget. Also, state law requires the Mayor of the City of Detroit to have line-item veto authority of appropriations.”
But Perkins rejects arguments that Proposal S could lead to financial problems. In a city with 30% in poverty, Proposals R and S are necessary to tackle inequality and “allow an equal share in the American dream,” he said.
Detroiter McGadney wants to shift an economic imbalance between Blacks and Whites, and highlights reparations paid by the U.S. government to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.
The Federal Reserve Board’s 2019 Survey of Consumer Finance found that White families’ median wealth was eight times that of Black families in the U.S.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported median household income in Detroit in 2019 was $30,894.
Meanwhile, a recent report released through the University of Michigan Detroit Metro Area Communities Study estimated about 37,630 Detroit households, equaling around 90,690 people, live in inadequate housing.
“We are not asking for a handout,” McGadney said. “We’re just asking to pay us and give us what the government knows that they should be giving us because of the sacrifices we’ve made and were forced to make ever since we came to this country.”
Other reparation cities
Others are mulling payments or plans. In 2020, California became the first state to launch its own reparations commission. This year, the City Council in Evanston, Illinois, voted to launch a reparations program to start paying eligible Black applicants $25,000 housing grants.
Months later, the Mayors Organizing for Reparations and Equality coalition pledged to pay reparations to some Black residents in their cities.
Detroit is uniquely situated for a reparations bid, said Stacey Deering, a professor specializing in political science who teaches American government at Eastern Michigan University.
“There is a rich history of red-lining, housing discrimination practices, segregation, gentrification, high poverty rates, low quality education and other societal ills plaguing this major city,” she said.
Williams with the Black Caucus argues reparations would gain in popularity since its benefits reverberate beyond the Black community.
“Everybody would benefit, from housing to the tax base, economic development, jobs,” he said. “What’s wrong with that?”
Mary McKissic, a retired educator who lives on the west side, has already voted early for the proposal.
She wants a task force to prioritize scholarships or grants to boost students and city schools while finding ways to combat air pollution and testing lead levels in water.
“I just think that people have been misused throughout the years, and it’s time for them to benefit from some of the things that have been taken away from them,” McKissic said.
If Proposal R fails, Sheffield said she will explore other options for reparations.
“It is incumbent of me as leader,” she said, “to address the atrocities of the past to inform our future and to level the playfield for Detroiters still suffering the ill effects.”
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