Providence, Rhode Island, is joining the growing ranks of cities trying to rectify their history of discrimination against Black residents through reparations programs.
Mayor Jorge Elorza, with Black residents by his side, recently signed a $10 million budget for the Providence Municipal Reparations program. “The radical thing that we did was we put Black voices in the center of city policymaking,” Elorza said in an interview.
While Elorza, a Democrat, has focused on how the program would help the city’s Black and Native American residents, there’s a hitch: it’s race neutral.
Black and Native American Providence residents qualify automatically but the city has also established a separate income criteria that could include about half of its white residents.
That has angered critics who say it is unclear how much of the money will flow to the Black residents, who comprise 12 percent of the population, and have been harmed by systemic racism.
“This is a short-term response to a 400-year problem because it makes people feel better,” said Justice Gaines, a local Black poet and community organizer. “My big fear is that there are now white people in our state who could say we already gave them reparations” and nothing more needs to be done.
More than a dozen states, including New Jersey, New York and Illinois are considering creating reparations committees to address the effects of racist policies. Evanston, Illinois, has already established what has been heralded as the first government program to address systemic racism through reparations. California launched a reparations committee, which is analyzing how much the state would have to spend to close its racial wealth gap.
The tension in Providence illustrates the difficult path ahead for those efforts and groups pushing for a national reparations program to compensate the descendants of enslaved people.
Providence began developing a reparations program in 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As protesters hit streets across the country, Elorza signed an executive order creating a “Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations” committee and tasked the African American Ambassador Group with issuing a report that would lay the groundwork for reparations.
“There was a lot of anger in Providence,” said Elorza. “What we wanted to do as a city was to make sure that we made the most of this moment to really address some of these long-standing racial issues in our community.”
In March 2021, the African American Ambassador Group released an 194-page report detailing the city and state’s deep involvement with the Atlantic slave trade, as well as four centuries of racist policies that robbed the state’s Black and Indigenous residents of economic security. Those policies created the current economic chasm between those communities and white residents, the report said, adding that there should be a “formal municipal apology for African enslavement.”
Over a five-year period ending in 2020, the median income for white Providence households was $54,272, compared to $41,093 for Black households and $23,894 for American Indian or Alaska Native households, according to U.S. census data.
“In Rhode Island, the disparity between Black and white wealth is vast,” the report states. “While there are numerous public policy and private investment strategies to help close the wealth gap, an important starting point, particularly in Providence and Rhode Island, would be to recognize our shared history of complicity.”
The report also called for the creation of a reparations program, which city officials approved earlier this year. The $10 million effort will fund various social programs, including workforce training, homeownership and financial literacy courses and small business accelerators. But it is financed by federal COVID-19 recovery dollars that must be spent in a race-blind manner.
To qualify, applicants must be a Providence resident of either Native American or Black ancestry, including Black immigrants who are not descendants of American slavery. Residents earning less than half of the area median income — or less than about $50,000 a year — or are living in certain neighborhoods will also qualify. That’s likely to include many of the city’s white residents, who make up about a third of the population. Native Americans make up less than 1 percent of the local population.
Even with its race-neutral parameters, the program will help close the local racial wealth gap, said Larry Warner, the chief community impact and equity officer at the United Way of Rhode Island, which helped develop the reparations program and will be distributing some of the money.
"I don't think it's going to be a problem if race isn't lost in the conversation," Warner said. "And I think you can't have a conversation about equity without including a conversation about race, because at the end of the day, it's systemic and structural racism that created the conditions that communities are either still challenged by or are recovering from."
But even some closely associated with formation of the program are concerned about how it is being described.
Calling it reparations is "dangerous," said Dannie Ritchie, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Brown University and a member of the African American Ambassador Group that wrote the report.
The group launched during the pandemic and was focused on tackling the "structural racism" contributing to higher coronavirus mortality rates for the city's Black residents, Ritchie said. That focus changed after Floyd's murder as communities across the country began discussing reparations, she said.
“I just kept saying, don’t conflate what we’re doing with reparations, just don’t do it,” said Ritchie. “You can’t just throw around $10 million for this and that program and call it reparations because then it will be done without ever really having a conversation about what repairing the harm would look like. You’re just throwing terms around.”
Supporters of such small-scale reparations say they are starting a conversation that could lead to a robust national program later. But detractors say it's making a complex conversation more difficult, while reducing pressure on lawmakers to take action to address the need for reparations. They are also wary of programs that don't include direct cash payments to descendants of enslaved people, which activists have argued should be an essential element of reparations and was the cornerstone of the reparations program for those affected by Japanese internment.
"People will say it's just a catalyst, we're just starting the conversation," said Ritchie. "But no, that conversation will start and will end with this and once that little bit of money is spent, people will go, 'yeah, that program didn't work. Why would we do reparations again?' "
Local critics of Providence's program say some Black and Native American residents and advocates struggled to have a voice in the process.
The leaders of Narragansett Tribal Nation, the state's only federally recognized tribe, repeatedly attempted to be a part of the effort, including unsuccessfully trying to contact to the mayor and city council, said Bella Noka, a tribal elder.
"Once again, they stole the Narragansetts of our voice," Noka said. "We didn't ask for this program. What we want is land returned, we want access to the ocean, we want you to stop digging up our burial places and erasing us as a people."
"This is just a way for them to be able to say in a few years, 'oh we solved our Black and Native problem by giving them this bit of money'," she said.
The effort will function as an "anti-poverty program" that may help the poor and bridge some of the city's wealth gap, said April Brown, the director of the Racial Environmental Justice Committee in Providence.
“But it’s not even the racial gap because there are way more poor white people living in Providence than anybody else,” she said. “Reparations means that you’re repairing something. There is nothing that will be repaired by what the reparations commission put forth.”
While it may not resemble what some hoped, defenders of the program say they are confident the influx of dollars will help struggling communities. The solutions and vision for the program were informed by leaders of the Black community, said Elorza, adding that it resulted in the types of investments that would not have been made otherwise.
But expectations should be realistic, he said. "From the very beginning, we've been explicit about the fact that no city has the capacity to right the wrongs of the past," said Elorza. "It just can't be done, but that doesn't mean we can't push this conversation forward."
The city is taking a “third rail” political issue and making it more mainstream, he said. “I hope this program paves the way and establishes some best practices for other cities, states, institutions and also the federal government,” Elorza said.