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The city of Detroit took everything from Keith E. Williams and his family. He now wants it back.
Right before he was born, Mr. Williams’s parents and older siblings left Black Bottom, a once vibrant and predominately Black neighborhood in Detroit, when city officials demolished the area as part of what was billed as a large-scale urban renewal project in the 1950s. The land is now a major freeway, I-375, and the location of the largely white, and affluent, Lafayette Park neighborhood.
Although city officials claimed it had successfully relocated the Black Detroiters who once lived there, no independent source ever confirmed those assertions, according to The Detroit Free Press. Mr. Williams’s family, who were among 43,096 displaced residents and an additional 409 Black business owners, struggled to rebuild their lives.
“It was taken from us,” Mr. Williams, who is now 64 and the chair of the state’s Black Democratic caucus, said. “It’s not only my family, it’s also all the other families that left too. We are still trying to catch up.”
But they may be closer to some relief now than in the past.
Detroit, like many other cities across the nation, is studying how best to atone for its racist past, part of a movement that has centered on the toll from slavery but has expanded to more local offenses.
In November, Detroit residents will be asked if they support the formation of a reparations committee that will research “housing and economic development programs” for its Black residents.
“It’s more than just talk for the first time,” said Mary Sheffield, the councilwoman who spearheaded the measure after local community leaders including Mr. Williams reached out to her. “We are seeing policymakers be serious about it, and we’re looking at what other cities have done, too.”
If Detroit forms the committee, it will join a small but growing number of local and state governments considering, or introducing, reparations programs across the country. In March, Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb, began distributing $10 million in reparations in the form of housing grants to its Black residents. In June, California became the first state to develop a reparations task force.
That same month, another 11 American mayors committed to introducing reparations pilot programs for Black Americans in their respective cities, from major hubs like Los Angeles to the tiny all-Black town of Tullahassee in Oklahoma.
The coalition, known as Mayors Organizing for Reparations and Equality, plans to “double or even triple” its number of cities by the end of this year, according to its founder, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles.
For Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Mo., reparations seemed like “something that a lot of people said in 2020 to placate the masses.” He sees joining the coalition and introducing a pilot program in his city as something that lets local officials “match the rhetoric.”
“I think the mistake people sometimes make is that they think reparations is a story about slavery alone,” Mr. Lucas said. “But it’s about looking at the legacy of the unfairness that exists.”
Mayor Jorge Elzora of Providence, R.I., said a reparations program could address the underrepresentation of Black residents within “all the halls of power” in the city, including schools, businesses and elected positions.
“As a country we have never addressed race issues directly, and look at where it has gotten us,” he said.
While the fervor surrounding reparations may feel brand-new, the movement behind it is anything but. Beginning in 1989, John Conyers Jr., a Democratic representative from Detroit, regularly reintroduced the same legislation proposing to form a federal reparations committee, H.R. 40, until his retirement in 2017. Congress heard the bill for the first time two years later, in 2019, the same year Mr. Conyers died.
Although the bill failed, the 2020 presidential election brought it back to life as a major campaign issue to engage young progressive voters. Following a peak in Black Lives Matter protests last summer, the national dialogue around race further reignited support of the reparations movement. In April, a House committee passed H.R. 40 for the first time, and it is now headed to the floor.
But the bill still has a long journey before legislators could approve it. If they eventually do, it is unclear how long it would take before a hypothetical commission could come up with recommendations and begin distributing aid.
And while it may be too soon to tell how these local reparations programs will fare, the response thus far hasn’t always been positive. After Evanston introduced its reparations program, the city received criticism from multiple groups.
The Project on Fair Representation, a nonprofit conservative group, sent multiple letters to Evanston’s City Council, arguing that its approved reparations program was both “unconstitutional” and “racially discriminatory.” Meanwhile, some residents — include those who are Black — protested in the streets, arguing that the program did not do enough for them.
Not every proponent of a federal reparations program supports similar initiatives on a much smaller scale.
“There are a number of detours away from what I would call true reparations, and one of those are these alleged local programs,” said William A. Darity, Jr., an economics professor at Duke University who has studied reparations for decades.
Mr. Darity argues that an adequate reparations program, totaling about $11.2 trillion for an estimated 45 million Americans — more than 13 percent of the U.S. population — who would qualify for it, can only exist on the federal level. Where cities plan to get these funds to support a local reparations program remains to be seen. Some of these local officials are looking for answers that don’t automatically equate to a huge cash payout.
For Sacramento’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg, who joined the coalition, reparations for Black people in Sacramento could mean acknowledging decades of housing policies that segregated the city.
But cost remains the biggest obstacle. The city just passed its $1.3 billion budget in June, and Mr. Steinberg is not sure what funding will look like next year. He said that the city remains committed to making something work.
“I philosophically support the idea of cash payments for people who are the descendants of slaves, or people who were forced into slavery,” Mr. Steinberg said. “But the challenge is the cost and how you make it meaningful.”
In the small town of Carrboro outside of Raleigh, N.C., Mayor Lydia Lavelle said the city is planning to take steps toward reparations for its Black residents, who make up roughly 10 percent of its population.
“We can do something at some financial cost to the city,” she said. “Even if it’s moving up the neighborhood roads in historically Black neighborhoods” on the list of streets to be paved.
While some remained concerned that a reparations program could never successfully work on a small scale, Mr. Garcetti disagrees.
“People are always asking how these cities are going to do reparations, and of course the city of Los Angeles cannot pay for this all alone,” he said. “But you can knock 10 years off the calendar if you can show the successes in these cities or towns.”
Some cities are opting for programs that will help Black residents with economic development and financial literacy, rather than a cash payout.
While Mr. Williams of Michigan’s Black Democratic caucus isn’t exactly sure what a reparations program could look like in Detroit, his hope is that the city’s program will outlive both him and his 38-year old son.
“I don’t want this to just be about me,” he said. “It’s about all of us. I want this to continue.”