(NewsNation) — Reparations: It’s a subject that draws strong opinions, both for and against. Despite that, more cities are looking to level the playing field for African Americans, and in the process allow other people to benefit as well.
No amount of money will rewrite history, but many people would like to see America try. For decades, proponents of reparations have called on the federal government to pay restitution to the descendants of slaves.
In 1989, Congress introduced a bill to form a commission to study and develop reparations proposals. They explored whether there was a need for the United States to atone for the enslavement of and racial discrimination against Black Americans, and if so, why.
A renewed push came following the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer. The murder sparked nationwide protests and ignited a call for racial justice. For many, it also highlighted the need to more closely examine the legacy of slavery and the harm caused by years of the physical and economical oppression of Black people.
Some believe it can start to be addressed through reparations, possibly in the form of money.
But not everyone agrees. Support for reparations differs greatly across racial lines.
A 2021 poll by the Brookings Institute found a whopping 86% of Black Americans supported reparations, with just 14% against the idea. But 72% of white Americans oppose cash reparations payments, with 28% in favor.
“The sweeping opposition among white Americans is rooted in the idea that recognizing slavery’s legacy actually undermines the idealistic view that the United States is a just society, and that it was founded on principles of equality and freedom,” said Ashley Reichelmann, an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Tech University.
Despite that, there are about a dozen U.S. cities considering some form of compensation.
The latest is Providence, Rhode Island, which recently allocated $10 million for a reparations program. The city aims to address its racial divide and deep involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, in addition to closing the wealth gap that exists between its white and Black residents.
Blacks and Native Americans automatically qualify, but the program also would include about half the city’s white residents.
Any Providence resident earning less than half of the city’s median income, roughly $50,000 a year, or living in certain low-income neighborhoods would qualify.
The reason? The program is financed by federal COVID-19 recovery dollars, so it must be race-neutral, leading some to question whether it can even be called reparations.
“I find that model happening in Rhode Island and Providence specifically problematic,” said Kamilah Moore, chairperson for the California Reparations Task Force. “I think it convolutes what reparations truly means, particularly in the American context where we’re talking about the atrocities committed against the African American community starting with America’s original sin, which is a transatlantic slave trade.”
Evanston, Illinois, made history last year when it became the first U.S. city to issue slavery reparations to its black residents, mainly in the form of housing grants. California has set up the nation’s first state-level reparations task force.
But not everyone agrees with some of the programs.
“You can have poverty programs, and then to dress it up as somehow it’s closing a wealth gap. It’ll take 242 years for Blacks to have the wealth of whites in 2016. That’s almost as long as we were in slavery,” said Dannie Ritchie, a clinical assistant professor at Brown University. “You cannot just sprinkle some fairy dust, some money here and say that’s somehow closing a gap.”
The concept is nothing new. Other groups have benefited from U.S. reparations, including six indigenous communities and more than 80,000 survivors of Japanese Americans interned during World War II.
Meanwhile, the conversation surrounding reparations for African Americans goes back to 1898 and continues today.
“Reparations is not about retribution against a particular group, but it’s about being, as a number of scholars see, a broader political project that is actually rooted in our responsibility as a nation,” Reichelmann said.