When Todd Perkins thinks of reparations for systemic racial discrimination in Detroit, he dreams not just of atonement, but of hope.
The Detroit attorney, who has long been pushing for reparations in the city where he grew up, dreams of a chance to finally acknowledge the pain that runs deep amidst institutional racism, from housing discrimination and segregation to police violence, income inequality and underfunded schools — and the prospect of building something better.
These dreams, Perkins said, could move closer to becoming a reality on Tuesday, when Detroiters will vote on a ballot proposal that could end in the city joining a growing number of U.S. cities tackling how to go about providing reparations in the wake of the country’s histories of slavery, Jim Crow and ongoing systemic racism.
Proposal R asks voters: “Should the Detroit City Council establish a Reparations Task Force to make recommendations for housing and economic development programs that address historical discrimination against the Black community in Detroit?”
The question is a historic one, said Perkins, who founded a nonprofit, The People’s Voice, that has dedicated itself to educating residents about the ballot proposal and the impact reparations could have on a city where close to 80% of the population is Black and about one-third lives in poverty.
“Reparations is a celebratory movement,” Perkins said. “I look at it as resetting the balance. It’s a resetting and bringing a sense of equity to all the people who have been disenfranchised and discriminated against. That’s done on a level that brings about business development and housing opportunities that have been denied.”
The reparations vote comes after the Detroit City Council unanimously approved a resolution in July allowing the proposal to be on the ballot. Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, with support from the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus, introduced the proposal and in July said the November vote is a “monumental step forward” that moves “the conversation from talk to action and towards making amends for the most egregious discriminatory and racist practices of the past.”
The concept of reparations has long existed; just after the Civil War, formerly enslaved people were each supposed to receive 40 acres of land from about 400,000 acres of land the federal government confiscated from Confederate landowners. That, in large part, did not happen, and much of that land ended up being returned to the original owners. Now, about 156 years after the Civil War ended, the federal government has yet to compensate the descendants of enslaved people, nor has it addressed the lost equity from Jim Crow segregation, anti-Black practices in housing and bank lending, and other discriminatory public policies in education and criminal justice that have left Black Americans with far less wealth than white ones.
White households in the United States have about 10 times as much wealth as Black households, according to the Pew Research Center. In Detroit, the median income in the city was half that of the overall region just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit Detroit Future City reported in May 2021. The same report noted that the average home value of a white Detroit resident is about $46,000 higher than a home owned by a Black resident. These kinds of inequities are what Perkins hopes reparations would begin to address.
“At one point, one of the greatest discriminators was the federal government with redlining,” Perkins said. “If you got a [Federal Housing Administration] loan, you were able to accumulate wealth when someone else had to rent for 30 years.”
Redlining is a term that has come to mean racial discrimination in real estate, but it originated from Federal Housing Authority maps that, beginning in the 1930s, outlined Black communities in red ink to denote where the FHA would not insure mortgages. While the practice was outlawed in 1968, discrimination in real estate remains pervasive across the country. In Detroit, Black residents are more than twice as likely as white ones to be denied mortgages, according to a study released in October from the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization.
There has been some recent federal legislation around reparations: U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) this year reintroduced a bill that was originally introduced by the late Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Detroit. The legislation would set up a program to study how, and if, reparations to Black Americans could be made. A companion bill was introduced by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
However, neither bill has made much movement. Without any definitive action from the federal government, cities have begun to take up the conversation around reparations — particularly in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the global protests against police violence and systemic racism that followed their deaths in the summer of 2020.
“What occurred to me was that the racial violence and police brutality that we were witnessing was just one part of a complicated, ugly history of being Black and a person of color in America,” Anika Goss, the chief executive officer at Detroit Future City, wrote of the summer of 2020 in her organization’s “The State of Economic Equity in Detroit.”
Reparations is a celebratory movement. I look at it as resetting the balance. It’s a resetting and bringing a sense of equity to all the people who have been disenfranchised and discriminated against. That’s done on a level that brings about business development and housing opportunities that have been denied.
– Detroit attorney Todd Perkins
“If we were to videotape the intentionality of redlining, segregation, and economic suppression, we would gasp in shock,” Goss continued in the report that was issued this past May. “We are in a rare moment of change in the United States. A moment not dissimilar from the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the Civil Rights Movement. The summer of 2020, when a pandemic that left 500,000 [now more than 740,000] Americans dead, race and economics became the agent of change for this country. We will never be the same. What do we do now?”
For Perkins, Sheffield and other reparations advocates across the country, the answer is: figure out a way to redistribute wealth in an attempt to finally begin to make amends for hundreds of years of oppression. What that has translated to has differed in various cities; in Asheville, North Carolina, for example, lawmakers passed a reparations program that includes millions of dollars in funding for homeownership and business opportunities for Black residents. Perkins imagines something similar transpiring in Detroit.
First, of course, the proposal actually has to pass, which advocates expect to happen. There is no organized opposition to the proposal, and Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett said he and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan are backing it.
“We’re supporting Proposal R; we’re extremely interested in being part of the national conversation,” Mallett said. “We think this is an important opportunity to talk about what comes next. We do know that concepts around equity really imply some kind of restorative justice mechanism.
“[Proposal] R is going to pass by a wide margin,” Mallett continued.
The difficult work, Mallett said, will come once the City Council begins to form the task force.
“What I’m really hoping is the task force the Detroit City Council puts together is really made up of experts and persons who have real life experience, a combination of academics, of economists, of historians, of community persons,” the deputy mayor said. “It has to be done in a scholarly, disciplined manner so when the results are produced, persons who are spiritually opposed to the discussion will not be able to attack the quality of the information … We have to be ready for the subversive attack we know is coming.”
To ensure that the proposal will pass, Perkins has been spending most of his waking moments outside of his job as an attorney in Detroit “doing Zoom meetings with community groups,” “getting information out on our website and through a radio ad,” and conducting other outreach efforts to educate people about reparations.
Ultimately, Perkins said, he hopes what happens in Detroit can become a blueprint for other cities across the country.
“Our goal is to go to each and every city, especially cities with a significant African American population, and promote this idea of reparations,” Perkins said of his nonprofit. “We intend to organize and create a momentum.”
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