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Cities are considering reparations to repay the debt of slavery, but can they?

As Providence and other cities consider reparations, some scholars argue that the nation owes a moral and financial debt to Black Americans that exceeds what any municipal government can pay.

Market House in Market Square is owned and operated by the Rhode Island School of Design. Until the late 18th century, the Brown family (Brown University) were known slave traders, including Nicholas Brown and Company, and scholars cited Market Square, then the epicenter of Providence's trade and markets, as a site for sales of human cargo from Africa and the West Indies.
Market House in Market Square is owned and operated by the Rhode Island School of Design. Until the late 18th century, the Brown family (Brown University) were known slave traders, including Nicholas Brown and Company, and scholars cited Market Square, then the epicenter of Providence's trade and markets, as a site for sales of human cargo from Africa and the West Indies.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Confronted with protests decrying systemic racism and a pandemic disproportionately impacting Black residents, Providence mayor Jorge Elorza decided it would take two bold actions to heal his city: Telling the truth about racism and paying reparations.

“If we want to make the most of this moment, we have to go to the root here, and we have to go to the source,” Elorza told the Globe. “That means confronting our history and our legacy with slavery, with discrimination, and with the unjust treatment of the Black community.”

Elorza joins a handful of city leaders across the country examining how their predecessors helped create and maintain the country’s racial caste system — and what their role might be in ending it. But even as local politicians take up the mantle of reparations, some historians and political scientists say the debt owed to Black Americans is one only the federal government is capable of repaying.

“There are both practical and principled reasons why reparations should be something that is assigned to congressional legislation and federal execution,” said William A. Darity Jr., a Duke professor and leading scholar on reparations. “It simply is not something that states and localities have the capacity to do.”

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The debate over whether and how to repair present-day harms wrought by centuries of racial injustice has long focused squarely on the federal government’s responsibility to apologize and pay for national wrongs against Black Americans — including slavery, housing discrimination, and racial violence.

Congress has taken action to pay historical debts before: More than 82,000 Japanese Americans received $20,000 checks as reparations for their imprisonment in internment camps during World War II. The payments, sent beginning in 1988, were accompanied by letters of apology from President George H.W. Bush. Other countries have made direct payments to individuals in wronged groups, including Germany’s reparations for Holocaust survivors and South Africa’s reparations for some apartheid victims.

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Scholars who advocate similar direct payments for Black Americans say the bill would be immense, and something only the federal government would have the capacity to cover.

For example, one way to calculate such payments, Darity and fellow researcher A. Kirsten Mullen suggest, might be closing the racial wealth gap facing Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. Darity said that group makes up about 13 percent of the country’s population while holding just 2.5 percent of its wealth, and closing the gap would cost at least $10-12 trillion, several times the $3 trillion that cities’ and states’ combined budgets add up to each year.

Even reparations plans that do not call for individual payments suggest investing billions or trillions into Black communities and institutions.

Money aside, scholars said national healing requires national atonement.

Barrymore Anthony Bogues, a Brown University humanities professor and director of the school’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, said: “Racial slavery was a national historic foundation of American society.”

So it follows that, as a country, the United States has to repair a wrong at the center of its identity, said Brown political scientist Juliet Hooker. “How do you make true the promise of an equal democracy that has not been equal for Black people and others in the United States?” she said.

But she noted that smaller communities also can pursue justice, especially given that federal reparations legislation still faces a steep uphill battle.

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Legislation addressing reparations for Black Americans has languished in Congress for 30 years, following many more decades of campaigns for compensation led by the formerly enslaved and their descendants. Though a bill commissioning a study of the issue, H.R. 40, has gained unprecedented support in the House this year thanks to new momentum driven by activists and public scholars of slavery, it is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled Senate. And regardless of the November election results, enactment of an actual policy would be politically difficult and require settling myriad debates over the practical details.

So, amid a clamor for racial justice, cities are moving forward on their own.

The City Council of Asheville, N.C., apologized on July 14 for the city’s role in slavery and unanimously voted to “address reparations due in the black community,” beginning with funding programs in majority-Black neighborhoods that support home ownership, housing affordability, and employment. A municipal task force on racial equity in Durham, N.C., on July 23 called on its City Council to create an equity fund to finance local reparations and voice support for reparations at the federal level. Late last year, the city of Evanston, Ill., launched an initiative to use taxes generated from recreational marijuana sales to fund services in Black communities, which have yet to be specified.

Darity said these acts, while necessary, cannot be called reparations.

“It’s important that we make a distinction between stopping a harm and compensating people for a harm,” he said. Equitably distributing resources and services, he said, is a core municipal responsibility.

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Elorza acknowledged that Providence and other cities couldn’t possibly make the Black community whole for the injustices suffered. Any reparations effort, he added, must be a collaborative effort among the various levels of government.

But Elorza insisted cities have a responsibility to act. “Mayors are stepping up to fill that void in leadership left by the federal government,” he said. “As cities, we bear the brunt of broken systems every day, and we don’t have the luxury of waiting.”

Providence is beginning its reparations process with citywide truth and reconciliation conversations, offering community members a chance to air any and all grievances, starting with colonization and slavery and including present-day inequalities. Ultimately, a commission will recommend specific investments in Black and indigenous communities.

Elorza said he is open to a range of potential policy responses, from investments in neighborhoods to direct payments.

Scholars and Providence community leaders said their city should account for the harm it has done to Black and indigenous people.

“Cities and states were integral to the Atlantic slave trade,” Bogues said.

A Brown University commission in 2006 documented the role Providence’s prominent merchants played in the centuries-long transatlantic trade that exchanged enslaved people, natural resources, and refined goods among Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Some 100,000 of the 600,000 enslaved Africans brought to continental North America were carried on Rhode Island ships. The same merchants were benefactors of Providence’s major institutions, including Brown and the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, both of which dedicated centers to exploring their ties to slavery.

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Scholars said Providence, like other cities, has perpetrated other harms against Black citizens as well, including allowing white mobs in 1824 and 1831 to attack Black people and their property. Elorza pointed to more recent examples: Neglecting the same red-lined communities to which the federal government denied loans and bulldozing Black neighborhoods to make way for highways.

Bogues said recent demonstrations filling city streets have held up a mirror to local leaders. “[Protests] raised the responsibilities of communities, or the responsibility of a city to its Black community,” he said.

Local action could seed national change, said Mark Fisher, a leader of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island. “It’s not going to be much longer before you hear the echo in unison all across the country for reparations,” he said.

At the very least, Providence leaders and scholars agreed, there is one thing cities can and must do: Tell the truth.

“There can be no reconciliation until there’s a full telling of the crime,” said Bishop Jeffery A. Williams of The King’s Cathedral, who moderates the African American Ambassadors group leading Providence in its truth and reconciliation process.

“What we’re interested in is putting out an accurate account of history and impact. And then we can move to a stage of healing.”


Dasia Moore can be reached at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore