The city of Cambridge is weighing reparations and restitution measures aimed at communities of color, joining a long list of cities and towns around the country grappling with the legacy of slavery and inequality and seeking to dismantle systemic racism.
Members of the Cambridge City Council have introduced two measures in recent months. One proposes a pilot reparations program, with an as-yet-undetermined amount of revenue from local cannabis sales directed to Black residents to redress the harms of slavery. A second order proposes a restitution program for Cambridge residents harmed by “the war on drugs” that would also be funded by a percentage of cannabis sales revenue.
Both programs have targeted launch dates of July 2022 though they remain in their formative stages. The measures have been tabled by the council to allow for more input from the community but could be voted on as soon as Sept. 13.
Cambridge City Councilor Patty Nolan, who put forward the reparations order with councilor E. Denise Simmons, said reparations are necessary because Cambridge played a role in implementing federal policies that made it harder for Black Americans to own homes and accumulate wealth for their families.
“It’s really important to recognize that reparations is not a gift,” she said. “It’s a correction of past discrimination.”
The reparations order references a program developed in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill. There, the City Council established an initiative in 2019 that used tax revenues from the recreational marijuana industry in Illinois to pay 16 Black residents of Evanston $25,000 each for housing and to create “intergenerational equity.”
The order on reparations calls on the Cambridge city manager to explore expanding such a program with additional funding from other sources to rectify policies that “prohibited descendants of enslaved people from acquiring wealth” in Cambridge. It cites statistics from a 2015 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that found the median net worth for non-immigrant Black households in Greater Boston was $8, a stark contrast from the median net worth for a white family at $247,500.
City Councilor Quinton Zondervan, who introduced the restitution order, said he’s optimistic about the prospect of a reparations program coming to fruition in Cambridge.
“There’s a lot of interest in the community to move this forward and to set the direction in terms of the cannabis revenues because those are new revenues,” he said, “and so there’s an opportunity for us to direct them towards justice from the beginning.”
The restitution program, if implemented, would distribute revenue from cannabis sales to “current and former Cambridge residents who have been harmed by the war on drugs.” The order notes that the war on drugs has “traumatized thousands of Black and Brown residents.”
Nolan said the two orders begin the process of determining how Cambridge can “rectify” historical injustices and policies. She said these injustices have to be addressed at a federal level but that the city needs to begin this effort at a “grass-roots” level.
“We were a center of abolition, and yet we also benefited from the slave trade and slave labor economically, right through the Civil War,” Nolan said. “We are not immune from the idea that we participated in it, and we benefited from it. And therefore, if we want to walk the talk of setting a model for addressing wrongs in the past, it makes sense for us to move forward with studying how we can do this.”
Nolan said she “expect[s]” and “hope[s]” the Council will vote on the orders at the Sept. 13 meeting, or if more comment time is needed, sometime later that month.
Other councilors say they believe there is enough support for the orders to pass and move forward to the city manager’s office and city departments to study the feasibility of setting up pilot programs.
Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who serves on the City Council, said she will vote for the orders because they’re a “starting place” for dismantling racial inequality.
City Councilor Marc McGovern said the conversation around reparations is “long overdue.” He emphasized that he hopes any order the Council passes will have a “generational impact” for people who have been affected by systemic racism.
Geeta Pradhan, the president and CEO of the Cambridge Community Foundation, said that reparations could be one of many solutions the city implements to right racial inequities in housing, education, and income. Her organization released a report in April that highlights how the rising costs of living in Cambridge particularly burdened Black Cantabrigians.
“Whether it’s reparations or major civic and social action, or government actions, someone needs to do something,” Pradhan said.
Saskia VannJames, a Cambridge resident and the president of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, said the group was glad to see the city take initiative on reparations because of a lack of discussion about them on a statewide level.
The council, a nonprofit that advocates for communities that have been hurt by the war on drugs, is hosting weekly public meetings about the measures, VannJames said. Cambridge residents can offer feedback they have for the City Council before officials vote on the orders.
VannJames said the most significant reaction residents have had so far was to urge the Council to create a race and equity commission that would examine equity in housing, the environment, public safety, and other areas of life in Cambridge.
“We are excited to see the City of Cambridge take that initiative, and hope municipalities across the state of Massachusetts follow suit in what Cambridge is doing because reparations and racial equity is a conversation that every municipality should be having,” VannJames said.
If the reparations order is approved, Cambridge would move closer to being the second community in Massachusetts to establish such a program to reckon with the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. In June, Amherst moved to create a fund to pay reparations to Black residents as a way of addressing a long history of discriminatory public policies. A two-thirds vote of the town’s council is required to approve any spending.
DiDi Delgado, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter Cambridge, said that last year’s protests should inspire Cambridge to take action on reparations now.
“Cambridge has a responsibility as one of the more financially stable cities here in Massachusetts to really come off of the onus of what happened last year in 2020 and actually put their money where their mouth is,” Delgado said. “If they say that Cambridge is supposed to be a diverse city, improve it.”