In November, 80% of Detroit voters supported the creation of a taskforce to explore reparations for the City’s past discriminatory policies.
Once established, the taskforce will make recommendations to the City Council. However, it will not have the power to enact any changes at the municipal level on its own.
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President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield introduced the initiative to Council in June with a detailed analysis identifying the need for equitable practices in the city.
Lauren Hood, chairwoman of the City Planning Commission, worked with Sheffield’s team to develop the analysis. Hood says the taskforce will need to acknowledge that, as a start to their work, that wrong was committed against Detroiters in the past. She emphasized that the vital components to the reparations process in Detroit will be an acknowledgement from a governmental body, accountability and ongoing conversations across the city.
BridgeDetroit spoke with Hood about reparations and to learn what Detroiters can expect from the taskforce in 2022. The following is an edited version of that conversation. Parts of the conversation have been cut for length and clarity.
BridgeDetroit: What are reparations? The proposal for Detroit was pretty vague in the sense that it’s not necessarily cash in hand to Black Detroiters. Can you share what reparations means from the community development perspective and why this is something that Detroiters need to stay up-to-date on?
Hood: Reparations has a couple of different parts. So, everybody understands the compensation part, but it’s also a science with an acknowledgement of a wrongdoing. Every commission or organized body that I’ve seen that is working on reparations starts with the historical analysis of the harm done and an acknowledgement from the committee of the harm. So whether it’s a local government, a state government, institution, it’s the harm-doer or the wrongdoer acknowledging that they’ve done something wrong, they’ve caused people harm.
And for me, personally, I think the acknowledgement is as important as the compensation, because I think that in Detroit, a lot of Black folks carry around shame for the way things are in the city. We blame ourselves and we blame each other. And … it is an acknowledgement from a government body saying we did this to you. (For example), ‘Sorry we put that highway through your thriving Black community where you could have generated generations of wealth. We took that away from you. We took your home, we took your business and we didn’t give you anything for it.’ I think that the acknowledgement frees us up to start to thrive.
BridgeDetroit: You are the chairwoman of the city planning commission. How is that work connected to the reparations work?
Hood: There is no formal connection. Within the planning commission, myself and our staff have been meeting with consultants around the idea of turning a racial equity lens on our master plan and zoning regulations for the city. So without calling it reparations, we’re kind of taking a restorative or reparative-based approach to looking at our master plan and our zoning for the city.
BridgeDetroit: I’ve heard that what was drafted for Detroit, the proposal that voters approved, was based on what was used in other cities like Evanston, Illinois. What parts of those plans did you find useful, helpful even, and could be duplicated in Detroit?
Hood: What was interesting is that Detroit is a Blacker city, a much Blacker city than all of these other places. And we’re like, if they could do it, we certainly can do it. But just understanding that governments were open to it, institutions were open to it, it gave us kind of permission to try it. I honestly can’t believe that we aren’t further along than all of these other places.
We should be leading in this work. I think the fact that we aren’t speaks to a certain racial dynamic here in terms of what we think about ourselves, what we think we deserve, and how we choose our leadership. I think all of that is evidence when we think about why it’s taken us so long to get to a place where we accept that we deserve reparations.
BridgeDetroit: Since you say we deserve reparations, why create a taskforce and not specific rules that guarantee change?
Hood: I think that there are three different parts of reparations. There’s an acknowledgement, some compensation, but then you’ve got to change your policies and practices to make sure that the harm doesn’t happen again. So I think that it’s not a complete cycle unless you do all of those things. How do we ensure that a highway doesn’t come through another community, that the government just doesn’t decide that a certain place is devalued to a point where you can just ask people to leave and not give them anything? So you need to put in place policies that protect folks from the same kinds of behavior in the future.
BridgeDetroit: We have heard talk about reparations decade after decade before, state and federal levels, with little to no movement. So how can the discussion that the taskforce will have at the municipal level really make a difference for people in Detroit?
Hood: I think, mentally, people are at a different place after (the murder of) George Floyd. Lots of people who may not have believed reparations were possible in the past think differently about it now. And certainly because you had all of these institutions making these racial statements last year. I think that those give us a means of holding institutions accountable. If you were an organization that came out with the racial statement last year about how you were going to do better, we can then say, ‘OK, some of you better be sorting out reparations for people that your organization has harmed.’
BridgeDetroit: Now that Detroit voters have approved this taskforce, how will the members be chosen and how soon will we start to see meetings and information being shared with the community?
Hood: That’s still being sorted out. I was part of a workgroup that worked with (Sheffield’s) team to develop the resolution and they just transitioned that work group into a steering committee. The steering committee is trying to set up public meetings by which we can hear from citizens around how people should be chosen. So we didn’t want to be prescriptive about any of it. We have the legislative policy division doing some research on how these other reparations commissions select people and what the terms are and what the tasks before them are. (This is) so that we can present to people what they’re doing in other cities. What do you think should be the way we do it in Detroit? Because that hasn’t even been determined. We wanted to get that in front of the public and get feedback.
BridgeDetroit: So what can Detroiters expect from the steering committee (before the taskforce is created)?
Hood: They can expect information and analysis on what reparations task forces or commissions in other places are doing, and they can expect a lot of conversations. Instead of doing giant town halls on reparations, we want to do them, at least by district, and in smaller geographies. But allowing as many opportunities for people to chime in.
BridgeDetroit: The proposal for a reparations taskforce was approved by voters, but Proposal P, which would have given voters more say in how money is moved through the city, was not. How does that affect the future of what the reparations task force can do in the future?
Hood: I thought that was interesting as well, that people didn’t see how those things were really the same thing. The taskforce will have some means of holding bodies accountable whereas a citizen or a group of citizens may not be able to. We should think about what is the makeup of the taskforce, and how does it work, to consider what kind of leverage groups should have in getting resources from city government and institutions. But the accountability piece is really the most important piece.
BridgeDetroit: As we begin looking at all the things that are coming to Detroit in 2022, what do you want people to know about this work? You have said accountability, that there’s going to be a lot of conversations, and that we’re going to recognize that Detroiters have been done, too. Is there anything else that you want Detroiters to know and be thinking about as we start this new year?
Hood: I think people need to understand that it took a long time to get us here, and it’s gonna take a long time to get us out. This is an ongoing process. This might be the kind of commitment or task force that goes on into perpetuity. What I hope people don’t do, is if they don’t see a free check in their mailbox in the next three months and be like, ‘I knew it wasn’t gonna happen.’ Like no, we need to have some long-term analysis of what’s been done to try and figure out what compensation looks like. It’s gonna look fine for a lot of people, and I don’t think a taskforce alone should be determining what makes people whole. You need to get people at the table and ask, ‘What would make you whole?’, you know? So I think that people need to understand that this will be an ongoing process.