For decades, Detroiters have been at the helm of the reparations discussion at every civic level.
Keith Williams, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus, ran the latest campaign in Detroit that created the upcoming Reparations Taskforce. The former Wayne County commissioner said he became involved in the reparations movement when he learned how much harm had been done to Black people through slavery, restricted covenants, illegal property taxes and gerrymandering.
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Williams said reparations is the most important initiative the government can take up to help close the wealth gap between people of color and white people.
BridgeDetroit interviewed Williams to learn how he was involved in the creation of Detroit’s Reparations Taskforce and how what’s happening in Detroit is related to the state and national discussion.
At the federal level, Senate Bill 40 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2021, and House Resolution 40 was discharged from the House Judiciary Committee in April of the same year. The committee voted 25-17 to create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. Locally, Detroit voters approved the creation of a reparations taskforce last November after City Council President Mary Sheffield introduced the proposal to council. Williams said Detroit’s taskforce community meetings are expected to begin in early 2022.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BridgeDetroit: Detroiters have been at the helm of reparations since …
Williams: Since John Conyers.
BridgeDetroit: Right. He introduced (the bill) … So why do you think this discussion has continually come back to Detroit? Why are Detroiters always leading the discussion?
Williams: It’s the Detroit toughness. We want to bring resolution to things. We know John Conyers introduced H.R. 40. We are trying to finish off John Conyers’ dream. He was my mentor. He got me involved when I was a county commissioner, and I never forgot that. It goes back to our history of Coleman Young and the Buddy Battles of the world; they set the tone for a progressive movement in Detroit.
BridgeDetroit: You worked with Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield — what did that look like? What was the process of getting the taskforce on the ballot?
Williams: What I tried to do was go to the people and get signatures, but that failed. So our alternative was to go to the City Council and see if they could put it on the ballot. The City Council went through a voting process and looked over the language to make sure everything was legal. It was an interesting process. And then I ran the campaign.
BridgeDetroit: Everyone has a slightly different answer to this question, so I’d like to pose it to you: What does reparations look like to you?
Williams: To me, reparations is paying back African Americans for the harm that was caused through the historical racism that happened in Detroit. To me, Detroit’s harm was in housing and economic development, that’s where there was the most harm. When you look at Hastings Street and Black Bottom, that’s where the majority of the harm was caused. And then you fast-forward and now we’re having property tax issues. So there’s a lot from the standpoint of how the government is structured that caused the pain.
BridgeDetroit: You mentioned Hastings Street and Black Bottom in regards to the harm that has been caused. Let’s think about some of the other things happening across Michigan, like changes to voting laws and an independent redistricting commission. How may these representation-related changes affect the ongoing reparations conversation?
Williams: To me there is no either/or. We need our right to vote, and more importantly we need to be paid for the harm that was caused to African Americans. It’s sad that we still continue to have to fight for our right to vote. It’s crazy to me. Why do other races have (access) to the ballot and Black folks don’t? Why do we have to go through that? If you look at the configuration of these districts, they dilute the Black districts, at its best, to make the white districts more powerful. I don’t get that. The folks in control know what they’re doing, and we’re fighting back, but we don’t have enough resources to fight because we are at the mercy of these statewide governments and the federal government. We can only control what we control, and they control the bigger picture. And that was all constituted by gerrymandering.
BridgeDetroit: Reparations have largely been a Democratic issue. Do you think there is any chance that at the state and federal levels there could be bipartisan support for financial restitution?
Williams: Well, it’s been in (Senate) committee at the federal level. It’s been three decades since John Conyers brought it to the (House) floor.
(We are taking) it to the cities and letting the cities be the guiding light for the federal government.
BridgeDetroit: OK, so you think that working through the municipal level is the only way to see change in this area?
Williams: Yes, because we don’t get what we want through filibuster change. It’s not going to happen through the federal government until we can find some Democrats who are amenable to our feelings about change and repayment for the harm that was caused. You can still get something done in municipalities. Without the reparations committee, we have 40 cities here from San Francisco and L.A., but Detroit is the true ‘chocolate city.’
BridgeDetroit: Would you say that’s the same for state-level government? That whatever happens in Detroit regarding reparations will affect what we see in the rest of the state on the issue?
Williams: Yes. I have a plan to do that. Every county in the state of Michigan — that has a Black Caucus — we are going to try to get a resolution passed (to create reparations taskforces) through a legislative process.