In issuing a formal apology this week for its role in the transatlantic slave trade, Boston joined a growing group of local and state governments pursuing an impossible goal: atoning for anti-Black racism and the legacy of slavery through some form of compensation.
With the push for reparations stalled at the national level, the debate has turned local, emerging in towns as small as Amherst and states as large as California. Boston’s efforts, while meaningful symbolically, are so far modest; the resolution passed unanimously by the City Council this week does not carry any funding or even launch a study, just vows “to dedicate policies and efforts to repair past and present harm done to Black Americans via systemic racism.”
In part that’s due to the immense difficulty of even launching the conversation in a city whose history is pockmarked by racial intolerance. Reparations are a touchy, controversial subject, tangling together centuries-old racial tensions with the challenges of ancestry-tracing and the limitations of municipal budgets. The challenges are both cultural — why, some white people question, should they apologize and compensate for sins they did not personally commit? — and logistical — who should receive reparations: all Black residents of a city, or just those whose ancestors were enslaved there? And, importantly, who should get to decide?
For proponents, reparations serve as an attempt to level a long unequal playing field, one that’s particularly tilted in Boston, where a landmark 2015 study found that the median household wealth of a non-immigrant Black family was just $8 compared to nearly $250,000 for a white household.
If reparations are to be issued at all, local efforts like the fledgling one in Boston will be crucial, experts say. Keith Williams, who chairs the Michigan Democratic Party’s Black Caucus and has pushed for reparations in Detroit, said at a virtual panel discussion this week that “all the energy [for reparations] is in the city, not in big government bureaucracy.”
And smaller-scale efforts can build momentum for national change, experts said, pointing to dozens of bills and resolutions introduced at the state and local level in the past few years.
“Reparations at the local level aren’t a distraction,” said Cheryl Grills, a member of the National African American Reparations Commission who is leading California’s efforts. “They’re an enhancement.”
Among the most ambitious efforts is in Evanston, Ill., where 16 beneficiaries recently received $25,000 housing stipends to reverse some of the harm done by local policy. Recipients were chosen through an application process, and the payments were funded through donations as well as a small percentage of the city’s recreational cannabis tax revenue.
Those distributions were the fruit of nearly three years of work. Robin Rue Simmons, a former alderman for the city’s predominantly Black, highly segregated Fifth Ward, acknowledged that cities don’t have the capacity to repair generations of anti-Black racism.
But even the limited money distributed so far will support housing stipend beneficiaries as they pursue home improvement projects, pay mortgage bills, and build up an inheritance for descendants.
“The outcomes that we’re hearing are exactly what we were hoping for, that our recipients are feeling heard, beginning to feel more of a sense of place, beginning to feel at least an effort to be made whole,” Rue Simmons said during a panel on Thursday as part of the Embrace Ideas Festival hosted ahead of Juneteenth.
Reparations can come in many forms. In California — the first state to establish a reparations task force in 2020 — a nine-member body recently released a nearly 500-page report outlining the lingering effects of slavery on African Americans across the nation, and recommending an array of measures to address them. Some, like allowing incarcerated people to vote, aim to repair the damage done by the mass incarceration of Black Americans; others, including the creation of an Office of Freedmen Genealogy, could aid African Americans applying for reparations to prove their ancestry.
While local and state efforts are leading the way, the scale of the injustice to be addressed requires collaboration at all levels, experts said.
“If you had federal, state, and city governments working in concert, you could make a real difference,” said Barrymore Bogues, director of the Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. “Limited city budgets and sometimes limited state budgets can only go so far.”
Conversations about reparations are also underway elsewhere in starchy New England, where many celebrate the region’s abolitionist history without fully reckoning with its historical wrongs and ongoing disparities. Providence and Burlington, Vt., among others, are studying reparations.
The conversation has also come up in Amherst, a majority-white community in Western Massachusetts, where a town committee is weighing what meaningful strides it can take given its limited resources.
“New England has not been seen as a place where anti-Black racism or even slavery has occurred at the same frequency as it has in the South,” said Michele Miller, an Amherst councilor who is helping lead the town’s efforts. “It’s important for people who may think, ‘Oh, this didn’t happen in Boston, this didn’t happen in our nice town of Amherst,’ to see that it did happen, it continues to happen, and it will continue to happen unless we break the cycle.”
In Boston, the conversation about reparations is at an even earlier stage.
City Councilor Julia Mejia is pushing to create a city commission to study reparations, but the formation has proven difficult. At a hearing in March, councilors expressed a wide range of views, raising questions about how much the body would cost and how its membership would be determined. The effort has proceeded slowly as the council debates its annual operating budget, Mejia said, but she intends to hold several more hearings on the commission and hopes to bring it to the council for a vote by the end of the year.
If and when that body begins its work, it would be a daunting process. Among numerous challenges, officials would have to develop criteria to determine who should receive reparations, setting up tough decisions in a city whose diverse Black community encompasses descendants of enslaved and free Black people in Massachusetts; descendants of enslaved Africans in the American South; first-generation immigrants from Africa; and descendants of Africans enslaved in other nations like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.
And that’s before grappling with the guaranteed resistance of Bostonians who don’t support issuing any reparations at all, not to mention questions about where to find the money for such efforts. Donations from local organizations could present a partial answer.
Those who advocate for reparations in Boston say this week’s apology vote was merely the first step of many. A formal apology is the initial step of a 10-point plan laid out by the National African American Reparations Commission.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Councilor Kendra Lara quoted Malcolm X, who said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. . . . The progress is healing the wound.”
“Not only have we not taken the knife out, we haven’t even admitted that the knife is there,” Lara said, paraphrasing the remark. “This resolution is specifically about not skipping the critical step of admitting that the knife is there.”
With that move made, proponents said they are optimistic about local efforts — and about the impact Boston’s work could have on the national conversation.
“Everybody knows the reputation that Boston has . . . just a deep, historical racial tension that exists here,” Mejia said. Given that, she said, “we’re so uniquely positioned — if we can do this right — to really set the stage on a national platform. Because if Boston can do it, other parts of the country can as well.”
Kate Selig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon. Emma Platoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.