Despite its long history as part of abolitionist discourse, reparations for African Americans have, for many years, been considered a “fringe” idea in mainstream politics. But in 2020, more places across the country are considering what reparations would look like on the local, state and federal level, as the need to redress hundreds of years of entrenched racial inequality becomes ever more apparent.
The latest cities to join this growing list are Washington, D.C., and Durham, N.C. According to the Associated Press, Durham city officials passed a resolution Monday night calling for the federal government to grant reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans and African Americans.
The recommendation was part of a 14-page report submitted by the city’s Racial Equity Task Force in July. The city is calling for reparations at the federal level because the policy is “either outside of our legal scope or our financial size” in terms of implementation, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said.
Also on Monday, District Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie proposed legislation that would explore how the nation’s capital could provide reparations to African Americans. Similar to proposals in other cities, the legislation first calls for a task force to study the economic impact of slavery in the city to create a specific plan for redress for D.C.’s African American residents.
“This is unprecedented, albeit timely—though most would say it’s well past time,” McDuffie said, according to the Washington Post. “We’re asking the task force to look at the history of racism in D.C. and what structural racism has resulted in for African Americans in the city.”
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law creating a committee to review the history of slavery in the state and make recommendations for reparations. The cities of Asheville, N.C., Evanston, Ill., and Providence, R.I. have also sought ways to start the process of distributing reparations.
Recent polling has shown widespread approval for reparations among Black Americans, while Non-Black people are divided on the issue. A year ago, an AP poll found only 15 percent of white Americans favored reparations, even though a slim majority—54 percent—said they thought slavery impacted African Americans “a great deal” or “a fair amount” in the present.
But the deep racial disparities exposed by COVID-19 have created a renewed sense of urgency around systemic inequality. Cities that have recently passed reparations measures have typically cited lower health outcomes for African Americans, as well as a dearth of educational opportunities, higher incarceration rates, lower wages and a lack of wealth, housing and resources as sources of concern. High profile cases of police brutality and white vigilantism, as in the cases of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, have also pushed racial equality and racial justice to the fore.
On top of reparations, Durham’s City Council is also calling for a number of progressive economic proposals, including universal basic income, a guaranteed living wage and an increase to the minimum wage.
In D.C., the call to study reparations is accompanying another type of legislation that’s gained a lot of steam this year: declaring racism a public health crisis.
“Using any measure of success: education, health, housing, employment—Black people are the bottom of every category,” McDuffie told the Post. “Race is the thing that weaves itself through all those statistics. It’s not simply an issue of Black people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”
D.C.-based anti-violence and racial justice activist Ron Moten pointed out to the Post that African Americans were instrumental in building the nation’s capital, but have been pushed out in recent decades as a result of gentrification. To Moten, reparations are a logical extension of the Black Lives Matter movement—one that everyone should get behind.
“They love to say [Black lives matter], but when you get down to the nitty-gritty and let’s fix it and let’s make it right, they say, ‘Hold up, we’re moving too fast,’ ” said Moten. “It can’t be the new buzzword—Black lives matter—if it’s really not going to matter.”