When Detroiters cast their votes in the Nov. 2 general election, they will be asked to consider Proposal R, which asks whether the city should form a task force to make recommendations for housing and economic development programs that provide redress for historical discrimination against Black people in Detroit. The “R” stands for reparations, though in the national conversation there is debate among scholars as to whether reparations is the proper term for such city-led efforts.
Reparations, in the form of land and dollars, have been issued by the federal government to Native Americans and Japanese Americans. The United States also supported and assisted in providing reparations to the Jewish community for the Holocaust. African Americans, however, still await redress from the nation for the atrocities of slavery and centuries-long systemic racial discrimination that they continue to endure.
What Proposal R calls for
Proposal R asks:
“Should the Detroit City Council establish a Reparations Task Force to make recommendations for housing and economic development programs that address historical discrimination against the Black community in Detroit?”
The ballot proposal comes after Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield sponsored two council resolutions on reparations. The first resolution, passed by Council in June, agreed that African Americans have been “systematically, continually and unjustly enslaved, segregated, incarcerated, and denied housing through racist practices and redlining.” The second, passed in July, supported placing the reparations initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot.
To be clear, Council possesses the authority to form a so-called reparations task force without voter input. But Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus who is working closely with Sheffield to promote Proposal R, said voter input is essential.
“There’s nothing wrong with the City Council bringing it,” he said, “but why not let the people who it’s going to affect have a say so in their futures?”
If Proposal R passes, Detroit City Council would be required to establish a reparations task force that will make recommendations, but it stops short of requiring action on those future recommendations. According to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC), Proposal R provides no guarantee of legislative or fiscal action towards enacting any of the recommendations the task force makes.
Proposal S, another ballot measure Detroiters will decide on in the Nov. 2 election, would revise the city charter to allow residents to allocate city funds through ordinances they enact by public vote. It was crafted by a Detroit attorney to create a pathway to fund reparations — read more about Proposal S here.
Reparations’ history in Detroit
Where Detroiters are concerned, there is a long history of support for reparations from the federal government to African Americans. Before his death in 2019, John Conyers represented the city for more than 50 years in Congress. From 1989 until his retirement in 2017, he annually introduced what is now H.R. 40, a bill to form the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.
“Reparations Ray” Jenkins, an activist and Detroit-based realtor, beat the drum for reparations even before Conyers. In 1963, he founded the organization Slave Labor Annuity Pay to rally around the issue. From then until his death in 2009, Jenkins lobbied legislators, appeared on talk shows, presented at churches and addressed thousands at marches like the 2002 Millions for Reparations Rally in Washington D.C.
In city government, former Detroit City Councilmember Rev. JoAnn Watson had a long history of advocating for reparations. She served as chair of the local chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and as a member of N’COBRA’s national board. She also contributed to scholarship on the subject, including writing a chapter for Dr. Raymond Winbush’s book “Should America Pay?”
Programs in other cities
Detroit’s recent efforts to form a reparations task force follows similar moves in other cities, like in Asheville, N.C. and Evanston, Ill., to address the racial wealth gap through home buying, home repair and business opportunities. While Asheville is still forming a task force to make recommendations on programs, Evanston officials approved the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program in March, making it the first U.S. city to fund a reparations program.
In its first phase which opened to applicants in September, Black residents of Evanston between 1919 and 1969, and their direct descendants, are eligible for up to $25,000 for mortgage assistance, home down payments or home repairs. Thus far, the city has approved $400,000 from the city’s reparations fund for the program. Evanston’s reparations fund is fueled by the first $10 million in revenue from a 3% sales tax on recreational marijuana.
At the heart of the debate among scholars over what should qualify as reparations is what constitutes reasonable compensation to shrink or eliminate the racial wealth gap between white Americans and African Americans in this country. The average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family because of the free labor and production that enriched white slave owners and their descendants on the backs of enslaved Africans.
In Detroit, the largest majority Black city in the U.S., inequities are widespread: the median white income is $16,000 higher than it is for Black residents, according to think tank Detroit Future City. White homeownership rates and home values are higher, and Black Detroiters are still more likely to be denied mortgages.
Scholars who believe that local programs are incapable of properly addressing this gap argue that only race-specific, direct financial payments from the federal government should be called reparations. Other programs, they argue, like housing, education or even business subsidies, could make positive social effects, but aren’t impactful enough to close the racial wealth gap.
Proponents of programs like Evanston’s, however, say a combination of individual and collective social programs that build Black wealth while eliminating debt are necessary. These would include direct individual payments, free college tuition, debt forgiveness and grants to purchase homes and start businesses to Black descendants of people who were enslaved in the United States.
Criticism and support for Proposal R
For Detroit City Council at-large candidate Nicole Small, the biggest problem with Proposal R is that it lacks financial or legislative “teeth” to enact real changes. Small served as vice-chair of the Charter Revision Commission that drafted the revised Detroit charter, which was put before voters as Proposal P in the August primary and voted down.
Proposal P, billed as the “People’s Charter,” was written over the course of three years with input from Detroit residents. The CRC described it as an effort to address the needs of Detroiters who “feel neglected and forgotten in the [city’s] recent resurgence in the post-bankruptcy era.” In addition to calling for the creation of a reparations task force, Proposal P mandated action to carry out the task force’s recommendations.
“We asked for an actual commission that would have functioning capabilities to really implement some stronger legislation around reparations for the citizens of Detroit,” Small said. Small does not support Proposal R.
“While I am in full support of reparations, if someone was going to hijack the work of the people they should have hijacked it in a stronger form, so it would have more teeth,” she said. “That’s what the people asked for.”
Small would like to see future legislation that grants a people-powered commission autonomy to make decisions about what race-specific reparations would look like in Detroit.
But Williams said that argument lacks grounding. “Just do your homework,” he said. “All of the initiatives, from Evanston, Illinois, to down in North Carolina, they did the same thing. First, cities and states have got to acknowledge the wrong that they caused on African Americans. The second thing is, you’ve got to create the task force. It’s just like anything else; when you build a house, first you build a foundation. This is just the first step.”