Of late, much discussion has taken place around the subject of reparations at the local level, as federal efforts have been thwarted at every turn.
Here in Providence, Mayor Elorza recently signed a $10 million municipal reparations budget backed by American Rescue Plan Act funds. The proposal itself received an ambivalent response from many Black and Indigenous community members, and I am one of them.
On the one hand, the investments in the budget are not insignificant. Workforce training, small business acceleration, and financial literacy are commendable. But we must remember, violence perpetrated on Black communities hasn’t been solely physical. From denial at the ballot box to exclusion from GI Bill benefits, the war on Black empowerment has been our nation’s cruelest intervention. The consequences can be felt to this day. Blacks are underrepresented in college graduation, homeownership, and life expectancy rates. Our freedom is freedom with an asterisk: a watered-down version of equality that has propagated the disparity we see today.
My response to this budget isn’t a minimization of its purpose. For more than a year, many local Black and Indigenous leaders have sat around the table and have deemed these investments important. I don’t disagree. Empowering Black and Indigenous-owned businesses, creating pathways for Black and Indigenous homeownership, and funding scholarships for Black and Indigenous scholars are all laudable aims.
My conflicted feelings aren’t a criticism of how these funds will be spent. Where I take issue is the flippant categorization of this omnibus as “reparations.”
In an opinion piece two years ago, I warned Mayor Elorza about his unconcerned use of this word after he teased a municipal reparations program.
I wrote then, “when I think of reparations, I think of restitution that is intrinsically connected, dollar for dollar, to the fair market value of the uncompensated labor provided by generations of Black slaves.”
I cautioned that the use of this word should be limited until we’re collectively ready for some excruciating conversations about what is truly owed to the Black community. Because what happened to our ancestors wasn’t just an assault on the body, it was genocide. What happened to our ancestors wasn’t just enslavement, it was dehumanization. What happened to our ancestors wasn’t only an injustice then, it’s an injustice now.
So, until we’re actually ready to reckon with some terrible truths about the damages owed for the millions of Black lives lost, mutilated, and violated, let’s not talk about “reparations” just yet.
Because the word and the expectation are one and the same. Anything less than the expectation ceases to be the word. If a municipality, such as ours, can’t satisfy this immense moral debt, then a different term should be chosen.
When the City Council took up this proposal, it was met with the same skepticism the community at large had received it with. Creating an Equity Fund run by our local United Way, $1.75 million in this budget will be used to attract philanthropy dollars that will provide services and resources to our most at-risk residents. These services include housing support, criminal defense assistance, food security, and others.
I know that this Equity Fund will foster a lot of good. I know that this budget will have a positive impact on the Black community. What I also know is that this budget isn’t “reparations” and calling it so would be an affront to the Black experience.
In a Washington Post opinion piece, Professor Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University implores us to “reimagine” reparations as a sweeping multiracial agenda intent on creating a more just world for everyone.
As utopic as that sounds, acquiescing to this would be settling for less. The apology must be unapologetically Black.
Mary Kay Harris, the Providence City Council’s deputy majority leader, represents Ward 11.