Detroit’s voter-approved reparations task force is at last assembled.
That’s the easy part, task force members said at a Friday press conference. Now comes the harder work of studying how the City of Detroit can address generations of discrimination that have held back the success of Black residents. Proposals borne from the task force and sent to the City Council will also spark larger questions about how to implement changes.
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Lauren Hood, a city planning commissioner and task force co-chair, said Detroiters should expect a deliberative and thorough process. The reparations task force is obligated to make policy recommendations to the council within 18 months of its first public meeting, which has not been set yet.
“The process of harming Black and indigenous peoples has transcended multiple generations,” Hood said Friday at West Side Unity Church. “That means the process of repair will transcend multiple generations.”
The 13-member task force includes lawyers, civil rights advocates, community developers, economists, labor organizers and experts in other relevant fields.
Council President Mary Sheffield appointed Hood, Keith Williams, the Rev. JoAnn Watson and Dorian Tyus to lead the task force.
The council selected the remaining nine members Tuesday from a pool of 13 candidates who were nominated by council members and interviewed in public meetings over the last few months. Anita Belle, Cydney Calloway, Camille Collins, Janis Hazel, Gregory Hicks, Bernard Parker, Jeffrey Robinson, Allen Venerable and Maurice Weeks were the top vote-earners.
Watson, a former City Council member and the senior pastor at West Side Unity Church, had a long list of topics worthy of study: Reimbursing residents who were overassessed by the city and lost their homes to tax foreclosure, grants for descendants of the former Black Bottom neighborhood displaced by the construction of I-375, clawing back tax abatements given to developers who have failed to follow through on promises, restoring control of Belle Isle to the city and subsidizing community college and child care, to name a few.
Some of these solutions could spark battles over funding and legal authority. Sheffield said the council’s Legislative Policy Division and Detroit Law Department will advise the council on the best route to take action on task force recommendations. She stressed that the task force will have the “latitude and freedom” to pursue new solutions.
“This work is not about handouts, it is about quantifying and acknowledging the pain and suffering of our ancestors and our people,” Sheffield said. “It is about creating generational wealth and creating economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community.”
Sheffield said she first plans to seek funding for the task force to do its work. The members are unpaid volunteers, but Sheffield said they may need to hire consultants or use funds for public engagement.
“I do plan on making some type of recommendation in this current budget for fiscal year 2024 that we allocate some type of money to the task force to do research,” Sheffield said. “We don’t want them to get up and run without any support. If you look at other cities around the country, their cities have allocated funding to their task forces.
“While legislation in Washington remains stalled, state and local governments are breathing new life into the reparations movement and taking the issue into their own hands,” she said.
Whether Detroit’s task force can succeed where other reparation initiatives have failed is a key question.
Task force member Janis Hazel worked alongside the late Congressman John Conyers to draft a bill to create a federal commission to study the effects of racial discrimination and develop “appropriate remedies.” A version of the bill has been reintroduced in Congress across three decades but has never been adopted.
Hazel said Detroit’s work to identify wrongs done to Black residents by the state and local government must happen alongside similar efforts to account for the federal government’s role in supporting the institution of slavery and other forms of discrimination against the descendents of enslaved people.
She pointed to anti-literacy laws that made it illegal for Black people to read or write, federal payments to slave owners to reimburse them for lost “property” after emancipation, a 1948 Supreme Court decision that reversed a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that supported racist housing covenants, the refusal of city firefighters in the 1960s and 1970s to protect Black neighborhoods, and more.
“There are so many things that have happened, you can address it on a local level but you cannot lose sight of the federal legislation that needs to look at how to redress (past injustices),” Hazel said.
Hazel added she’s “disheartened and downright disgusted” that Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden have not created a federal commission to study reparations.
“Just let a commission do its work, present a report to Congress and say ‘here are some ideas,’” Hazel said. “Why have you not done that, but you’ve sent $40 billion to Ukraine. That’s offensive to me.”
Zeek Williams, founder of community aid organization New Era Detroit, said the country was built off “free Black labor” while Black Americans have been systemically prevented from building generational wealth.
“We stand here in 2023, which is almost 20 generations of wealth-building for white people in this country, and I want y’all to understand this: In this country, for us, it’s only technically been 59 years since the Civil Rights Act,” Williams said. “That’s not even two generations of wealth-building. What I want to put into perspective is the understanding of how we get all these rich billionaires that don’t look like us coming to our cities and communities, they’ve got a leg up and we’re getting pennies and crumbs. That’s been by design. It’s not because we’re not capable.”
Keith Williams is task force co-chair and chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus, which led the push for a reparations ballot initiative in 2021. It passed with support from 80% of Detroit voters. Other cities have established reparations committees in recent years, but Keith said Detroit is the first to create one through a citizen-supported ballot initiative.
Sam Riddle, a longtime political consultant who ran for Congress last year to represent Detroit in the 13th District, said the task force is a “grand start” but he’s not sure it will be so easy to secure funding or make change. Riddle said the real challenge will be convincing “billionaires who benefit from corporate welfare” to support the work.
“I’m not cynical about what can be done, but (the task force) doesn’t have five votes on that Detroit City Council because the City Council is in the hip pocket of corporate Detroit,” Riddle argued to BridgeDetroit after the Friday press conference. “We have to look very hard at what’s occurring here and that’s why (the task force) needs to be given an investment.”
Riddle said the task force is full of qualified people, but he asked himself “where are the white folks?”
“We’ll see what the words of the governor and others meant when it came to the discussion about I-375,” said Riddle, in reference to the highway constructed in the 1960s that wiped out prominent Black neighborhoods and hundreds of Black businesses. Now, a plan is underway to transform the interstate into a street-level boulevard that will connect neighborhoods.
That (375) was significant because they said, ‘yeah this is systemic racism.’ Acknowledgement is one thing. Real restitution is to breathe life into their words,” he said.
Hood said Detroit residents will be heard and have an important role in the process over the next year.
“We are not here to decide in isolation what that is. We are here to steward the process of engaging as many people as possible in this conversation,” Hood said. “For folks who say it will never happen, just to get to this moment was somebody’s wildest dream. Can you imagine what freedom looked like to a slave? Anyone in this moment who thinks reparations are not possible, look at what we’ve done so far.”
MDOT and the State want to bring I-375 up to a boulevard level without doing much to give space to the people impacted by it. They still want a 6 to 9 lane road here since they still put moving car traffic at deadly speeds above the people. Their plan for that project will kill people and Detroit shouldn’t accept anything less than restoring the street grid to the original form as best as possible.
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