By Azie Bonds Jr.
There’s a debate raging rapidly across this country and it has nothing to do with Ukraine, China, abortion, inflation, or Chris Rock’s comeuppance to Will Smith. At this moment in city and state boards across America legislation is being discussed on a topic as old as Reconstruction, as current as fluctuating gas prices and rooted in an economic methodology, primed with decades of discriminatory practices against African Americans in the areas of housing, jobs, education, incarceration, and their lack of participation to the fruits of the American promise: Equality and freedom.—– That debate is Reparations.
First introduced by the late Michigan Representative John Conyers, H.R. 40 has been bounced around every legislative session like an NCAA Tournament since 1989. The bill, currently headed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and supported by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, H.R. 40 is gaining traction with support of 170 members of Congress, and 300 organizations nationwide that includes the NAACP, ACLU, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Writing the wrongs of more than a century of slavery, discrimination and systemic social and economic inequities is a procedural process currently under construction in nearly every major American city (with the exception of Milwaukee). Evanston, Illinois for example, made national headlines in 2021 as the nations’ first city to offer reparations to Black residents in the form of housing grants under its “Restorative Housing Reparations Program”. Using the city’s tax budget revenue collected from the sales of recreational marijuana to support reparations it proposed an allotment of $25,000 for each of its black residents to go towards home ownership, education and economic disenfranchisement. Perhaps a slow and cautious start but nonetheless significant.
By contrast California has knocked the ball clear out of Dodger Stadium. A Task Force appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd has suggested the state owes African Americans approximately $640 Billion dollars and with 1.8 million Black Californians in the state that equates to $360,000 per person. By contrast, the city of San Francisco has proposed payments of $5 million to every eligible Black adult, the elimination of personal debt and tax burdens, a guaranteed annual income of at least $97,000 for 250 years and homes in San Francisco for just $1 a family.
The proposal is not without it’s critics however. A recent study has shown a verdict of this magnitude would cost non-black families approximately $600,000 apiece. Additionally California it is argued was not a slave state and therefore should not have to pay restitution for a practice it did not “at least legally” participate in. The group is set to deliver its final recommendations to the state legislature by July 1 and it will be up to lawmakers to decide whether to adopt them. If successful it will become the largest jurisdiction in the country to pay reparations of this magnitude.
Other cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, New York and many more have created their own task forces to study, evaluate and make recommendations to their respective governors for appropriate remedies of redress. If California can admit its sins and change the narrative, then there is a way forward for states and cities across the nation,” said California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who wrote the bill creating the task force when she served in the state assembly.
One of the most difficult questions any task force faces is how to define the historical period for measuring harms experienced by Black residents in states where slavery was never legal. And they’ll need to show how the reparations and policy changes will reduce the persistent racial wealth gap, which presently has left U.S. white families with roughly six times more wealth than Black families.
In June of 2020 a group of Milwaukee Common Council Members released a statement of what could be called a precursor to a reparations plan or at least the closes that I could think of. It reads in part…………
Immediate Release Issued June 20, 2020, by its own African American Aldermanic Districts:
For years we have known that Milwaukee ranks among the very worst places for African Americans to live when it comes to segregation, employment and economic inequality, health disparities and education. Now we are learning that Wisconsin ranks as the worst state for racial equality in employment and wealth, thanks to a new study. (The WalletHub study)
In a comparison of 50 states including the District of Columbia and analyzing the economic gaps between white and black income and home-ownership rates it was found:
- Wisconsin placed 50th in racial equality, just above the District of Columbia, in last place. Other Midwestern states ranking just above the Badger state in racial inequality in their economy was Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan with Ohio ranking one point above..
- On the flip side, New Mexico is ranked as the state with the highest racial equality in its economy, followed by Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii and Texas. According to the study, the average white family has a net worth of $171,000, compared to just $17,150 for the average African-American family in the U.S.! ….if we seek to meaningfully address injustices that affect the daily lives of black and brown people across Milwaukee, Wisconsin and our nation, we must first tackle core economic issues that are destroying the hope for a better life for untold thousands of minority residents. Oppression by economic discrimination and income inequality is still oppression, and is especially cruel and unjust…………….”
It further reads..……………the first step is for Mayor Barrett to pledge full funding for the Office of African-American Affairs in the city’s 2021 budget.
- A fully-funded OAAA would show Milwaukee that we are truly working to push the needle in a positive direction toward economic equality.
- If we don’t act to make improvements to better the lives of black and brown people now, then we are failing to capitalize on a pivotal moment. We can and must do better, change must happen now.
It has been three years since this announcement was made and Milwaukee now has its first elected Black Mayor. It is perhaps one of few major cities without a Reparations Committee in spite of an overwhelming number of black city council-members and numerous other elected officials in city, county and state. Understandably, the city has a high priority in fighting mounting crime, car theft, traffic violations etc…but it is no different from any of the other cities plagued by similar distressful categories and still have made a Reparations Advisory Committee one of its prime objectives.
It is time now for Milwaukee to get on the bandwagon of the reparations train that has clearly left the station and to do so with mounting enthusiasm.
- Local initiatives are extremely important to start a conversation,” said Thomas Cranmer, associate professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut, “The past is the past, but we can start a conversation about it by making a down payment (financially)and then addressing what other injustices occurred.”
The issue of reparations is not without division. About three quarters of Black Americans say
- descendants of enslaved people should be repaid in some way, while only 18% percent of White Americans feel the same way, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Yet perhaps not surprisingly, many polls show Japanese Americans who received a reparations check by President Reagan through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 are supportive of black Americans getting some type of a monetary retribution of their own.
According to many supporters, “we don’t have to go back to 1619 or 1863” there is plenty of debilitating evidence to prove tangible harm. As one Connecticut assembly person put it, “the legacies of slavery and discrimination continue in denying access to buying homes, to quality education, and to healthcare. Those are all things that all economists can measure.”
Now is the Time
With the demands getting higher each year across the country to repair a national breach denied for centuries, some form of monetary remuneration is equitable.
I am reminiscent of Dr. King’s eloquence nearly 60 years ago that ignited this country towards a new trajectory.……… “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Excuse my verbosity but .……………. “Now is indeed the time” for Milwaukee to join in the national pursuit of financial compensation, supported by the statistical gaps of racial inequality as the basis for its case. Highlighted among these would be housing discrimination, redlining, and gentrification; with emphasis on over-incarceration, policing, property seizures, devaluation of black-owned businesses, education and lack of adequate healthcare.
Even though nationally our concerns are similar one size need not fit all. After months of debate the Evanston Reparation council for example, stopped short of awarding a financial indemnity to every local Black citizen, instead opting to put the money into housing grants and development for selectively targeted African Americans.
Whatever form is ultimately decided and legislated in Wisconsin “Now is the time” for Milwaukee’s public officials to form an African American Reparations Task Force. The city’s Department of Racial Equity and Inclusion seems to me a great place to start.
“Now is the time” to research, access and garner the statistical information that leads to a quantitative and qualitative assessment of the damages that segregation, discrimination and gentrification has had on the city which has stymied generations of progress involving Milwaukee’s Black residents.
“Now is the time” to propose to our state legislators a scenario in which financial proceeds will be distributed to those qualified whether it be one lump sum or with funds distributed by check, voucher or a guaranteed annual income for decades to come.
As Dr. King concluded…………”We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. “This is not the time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
Now indeed is the time, if not now, when, if not us who?