Detroit’s first reparations committee is asking residents for insight and stressing patience as it takes “baby steps” toward developing programs to address systemic racism.
A majority of city voters supported a ballot initiative establishing Detroit’s Reparations Task Force in 2021, which met publicly for the first time Thursday after members were appointed by the City Council earlier this year. Co-chairs Lauren Hood and Keith Williams said their vision for reparations isn’t constrained to cash payments, but the conversation is just starting. The task force must release recommendations to the City Council within 18 months of its first meeting, setting a target for October 2024.
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“We’re not talking about a one-time payout, but a paradigm shift in the kinds of policies and practices that govern Black communities,” Hood said. “In Detroit specifically, it requires a fundamental shift in priorities. Addressing past harms requires prioritizing the condition of our people ahead of prioritizing the condition of our property.”
Detroiters were eager to offer insights and recommendations. For an hour, Black residents recounted the historic damage of slavery, segregation, denial of access to opportunity, resources and property, forced removal and misuse of political power.
Some said reparations should include broad social supports. Suggested programs could address workforce training, pension repayments for city retirees who endured cuts through the city’s bankruptcy, school investments, ensuring homes have clean drinking water, addressing the health risks of air pollution and more.
Others focused on what they described as another example of institutional harm against Black residents: The mass overassessment of Detroit homeowners from 2010 to 2016. Overtaxation sent thousands into debt and caused a wave of foreclosures and evictions. Detroit was once a national model for Black homeownership. Now homeowners narrowly outnumber renters.
“It’s about cash,” Detroit resident Tenay Hankins told the task force Thursday. “Let me decide what to do. I stopped counting at $12,000 in terms of me being overtaxed. We could have sent our nephew to Morehouse with what we were overtaxed.”
Detroit’s budget for the upcoming year includes a handful of benefits for residents who were overassessed. Benefits don’t include direct payments. Instead, residents can choose between a discount on land bank properties or preferential access to existing jobs and housing programs.
Hankins said the task force is in “good hands,” but they must ensure reparations proposals can’t be shrugged off by city officials. Efforts to repay illegally overtaxed residents face their own legal hurdles. Detroit’s city attorney says it’s unconstitutional to issue direct payments to individuals.
“Let’s use this opportunity to build a movement where we can legally get what we want and put the financing behind groups that are doing the work,” Hankins said.
UpTogether, a national nonprofit, is pushing Detroit City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan to create a guaranteed income pilot program. The organization sent a letter last month calling for residents to receive $1,200 per month for two years.
Kofi Kenyatta, senior policy director of UpTogether, said the task force can’t think small. Kenyatta said payments should be given with no strings attached. He also suggested investigating the harm caused by mortgage companies and financial institutions.
“Our city has a long painful history of discrimination against Black people,” Kenyatta said. “The time for reparations is long overdue.”
The taskforce has a $350,000 budget secured by the City Council, which will pay for facilities, consultants and legal expenses. Members plan to meet biweekly in different locations across the city and follow the Open Meetings Act, which sets requirements for public participation. The next meeting is set for 4 p.m. Friday, April 28, though a location has not yet been decided.
Task force members say they’re carrying forward a legacy of Black Americans who have fought to legitimize reparations. The 13-member committee is comprised of attorneys, academics, community organizers, faith leaders and Detroit professionals. Every member is Black, though it wasn’t a requirement to serve.
Members credited the late John Conyers, who championed long-denied legislation to create a similar reparations committee in Congress. Cities like Detroit have taken up the charge as progress at the federal level remains stalled.
Hood said undoing generations of harm against Black people requires generations of work. This is one moment in a long timeline, she said Thursday.
“We’ll know this movement has been successful when struggle and adversity are no longer synonymous with an African American identity,” Hood said. “Reparations is a framework for relationships. We are stewards of this process and not the sole final word. We’re here to make sure that everybody who wants to be heard can get heard.”
I am wondering who would be welcome to come to these meetings so that believers in racial justice and activists from other faith groups can add their voice of support
for reparations and programs addressed toward this goal !
I am part of Detroit Jews for Justice and a synagogue in the Greater Detroit Area that is working on learning about how to support this important work.
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