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"A debt owed, not a handout." Detroit Reparations Task Force has its first public meeting

City of Detroit
City of Detroit
Detroit's first Reparations Task Force meeting.

Cecily McClellan grew up in the 1950s in the type of neighborhood where she knew everybody. Where neighbors watched out for and disciplined each other’s kids. Where most everybody she knew was Black.

By the time she was a teenager, the mostly Black neighborhood Black Bottom had been demolished to make way for a freeway. Historic records say thousands of residents were relocated for very little compensation.

“You never had a neighborhood like that that you could, you know, recreate again, okay? Where you would have those businesses, where everybody knew everybody. You know, many of the people I grew up with, even today, some of them still know me because we lived in that area,” McClellan said.

Black Bottom was on her mind as she was one of the first people to show up to Detroit’s first Reparations Task Force meeting.

Other people talked about Black Bottom too. About slavery. About the millions of dollars in over-assessments in property taxes, and the foreclosures. About the loss of Black businesses.

It was the first-ever Detroit Reparations Task Force meeting, nearly two years after 80% of Detroiters voted to approve creating a task force.

Shannon Slayton spoke during the meeting’s public comment. She wants to make sure any reparations benefits go to Black folks and Black folks only.

“This should not be an all reparations matter initiative. An initiative for Black Americans should be imagined by those same Black Americans of this Detroit. And specifically for Black Americans harmed by the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, the war on drugs, domestic terrorism, unfair housing and education disparities,” Slayton said.

Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield, who helped spearhead the effort, said the task force will have a $350,000 budget.

Task force members say that money will be used toward securing places to meet in each district in the city and for bringing in experts and researchers.

Lauren Hood is one of the co-chairs of the committee.

“We're doing something that's never been done before. There is no template. So whatever happens as a result of this process is progress. Generations of harm requires generations of redress. This is a moment in a long timeline of efforts,” Hood said during the meeting.

The ballot initiative that voters approved called for housing and economic development programs to address historical discrimination against the Black community in Detroit.

Some of the questions they’re expected to wrestle with are who might be eligible for reparations — and what compensation and distribution might look like.

So far, the task force is planning to have four subcommittees focused on housing, education, economic development and research.

Jasmine Simington co-authored a report that found that a majority of Detroiters support reparations for Black Americans.

It found their support is strongly tied to their perceptions of the racial wealth gap, the legacy of slavery, and other forms of racial inequity.

There’s a long legacy of Black Detroiters, and Black Americans, calling for reparations. But Simington says recent events have put reparations back in public conversations.

“COVID, George Floyd, inflation, all of these things, I think all of these crises, climate change... I think are shifting public perception about the role of government in both preventing and also, kind of, just easing the instability of everyday life,” Simington said.

That report focused on monetary reparations for Black Detroiters. Something a lot of public commenters mentioned.

But Simington also mentioned government programs that are not called "reparations," but are intended to reduce harms that disproportionately affect people of color. Those are programs like a down payment assistance program announced last month in Detroit, which will give residents up to $25,000 for a down payment to buy a home, as long as they haven’t owned one in the last three years.

It will only be able to assist a small fraction of the Black Detroiters who could potentially be eligible.

Across the country, other cities and states are talking about reparations too.

Evanston, Illinois’s Reparations Committee made a plan to give some eligible Black households up to $25,000 for a down payment or home repairs. It also made a plan to give some Black residents down-payment assistance. The initial plan was allotted $400,000, so if each family used the maximum amount, only 16 households would be able to participate.

California and Asheville, North Carolina have established committees to research and recommend proposals to address inequities endured by the descendants of slavery.

14-year-old Brooke Bowers grew up hearing about Black Bottom, about the time when Detroit had 19 Black-owned hospitals. Back when there were more public schools in Detroit instead of empty buildings.

“I think it's very much so possible for them to take the steps to ensure that we get the reparations that we deserve. We keep putting tension and tension and one day they're just going to have to listen to us. Like if a bug keeps flying in your face, you're just going to leave it there and no, you're going to swat it. We're going to get a reaction one way or another. And this is just one of the first steps,” Bowers said.

City of Detroit
Cecily McClellan speaking at Detroit's first Reparations Task Force meeting.

For Cecily McClellan, reparations look like affordable housing, investment in Detroit Public Schools, jobs and Black people working on all of the development projects in the city. She sees it as a debt owed to families like hers, and lost neighborhoods like Black Bottom.

“There are a lot of things that could happen, you know, if people have been given the opportunity to relocate their businesses in another area, they were given resources, you know, that wealth could have been passed on to another generation, you know, to their families,” McClellan said.

Centuries of systemic discrimination faced by families like McClellan’s is going to take a long time to undo. But a meaningful reparations program could give more Black Detroiters a chance at generational wealth. And that could be a game-changer in the biggest majority-Black city in the nation.

The next Reparations Task Force meeting will be on Friday, April 28 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. A location has not yet been determined but the group plans to meet publicly biweekly.

Reverend JoAnn Watson is one of the leaders of the task force.

“There was a debt owed. It's not a handout. And we're here to make sure that those folks who are owed compensation, like those who were over-assessed taxes get their due. That's why we're here. And it's a blessing to be here.”

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
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