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COMMENTARY

Providence Reparations Commission’s spending plan is not, in fact, reparations

Although African American and Indigenous residents are referred to as the beneficiaries of the commission’s proposed budget, the primary beneficiaries are instead driven by zip codes assuming income-eligible characteristics

Providence City Hall in Providence.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

In January, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced his plan to use millions in American Rescue Plan Act funds for reparations and community resources. The city sought to create and empower a public body to determine how to spend the money. That public body would “address disparate impacts of COVID-19 due to structural racism and provide reparation to impacted individuals,” Elorza said.

The challenge with Elorza’s reparations spending plan is that it is not, in fact, reparations.

Reparations has a specific practice, protocol and process that has, in its foundation, a moral imperative as referenced in the CARICOM Reparations Commission and the exemplary Truth Commission in South Africa.

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The reparations process includes a specific recognition of a harm done to a marginalized community and a full and formal apology. It is followed by repatriation of people, and then by additional actions to ameliorate the harm done. Those actions can include correcting literature so that the harm does not continue, a development program for indigenous people, investment in cultural institutions, public health initiatives to alleviate the burden, an awareness campaign so that all know the rights necessary to return to those who lost them, and finally, debt cancellation.

Which brings up Providence’s recently proposed $10 million in ARPA funds “Reparations” budget.

The work of Providence’s Reparations Commission must move beyond anti-poverty measures — including initiatives aimed at wealth and income disparities — and beyond reform of public policy and practices underlying many social inequities. It must focus on specific communities harmed by American institutions of slavery, Jim Crow, race-based economic exploitation and the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

While Black and Indigenous Americans are mentioned in the budget, they will not be the primary beneficiaries of the budget. There are less than 200,000 Providence residents (U.S Census 2020) and of those residents, roughly 38,000 (37,892 is the exact number) live in poverty. There are 7,269 Black or African Americans living in poverty in Providence, and 353 American Indian/Alaska Native Indians living in poverty in the city, for a population total of 7,622. Black and Indigenous Americans were enslaved for more than 500 years, and this budget labeled “Reparations” is likely to benefit 30,270 people who do not identify as either Black or Indigenous.

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To put these statistics in proper perspective, this plan reads more like an “equities” fund, as presented in September by Keith Stokes, the city’s director of business and economic development.

This budget is akin to an anti-poverty program that invests in small businesses, however there is no real investment in small businesses based on community good, such as green jobs, renewables or technology. There is nothing that addresses or stops the harms that continue to be done to the Black and Brown communities.

Although African American and Indigenous residents are referred to as the beneficiaries of the commission’s proposed budget, the primary beneficiaries are instead driven by zip codes assuming income-eligible characteristics.

More importantly, the commission is being asked to create a comprehensive plan in 12 weeks. This is problematic because it puts urgency ahead of serving the good of the community.

The City Council needs to slow down and allow for deeper community engagement, as was done in the development of the Task Force Report: Figure out how to create an avenue to have a real reparations process. This can be done with real investment in the suggested Black and Indigenous Policy Institute that can build something sustainable and of greater service to the community at large.

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April Brown is the interim director of the Racial Environmental Justice Committee, located in Providence, the co-director of the Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading Committee.