Detroiters overwhelmingly voted for reparations. What happens next?

Several questions now loom over Proposal R’s victory

click to enlarge A protester in Detroit holds a sign in support of reparations. - Viola Klocko
Viola Klocko
A protester in Detroit holds a sign in support of reparations.

The most popular choice on Detroit’s 2021 ballot wasn’t the candidate you probably expected. In fact, it wasn’t a candidate in the traditional sense at all. It was an idea.

When they hit the polls last November, Detroit voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal R, which will now establish “a reparations committee to make recommendations for housing and economic development programs that address historical discrimination against” Black Detroiters. With 72,490 yes votes (80.1%), Proposal R edged out Mayor Mike Duggan’s 69,353 (75.6 %), making it the top vote-getter in an otherwise sleepy election. But as communities across the nation begin to weigh how private and public sector discrimination have looted Black communities while enriching white communities — from Asheville, North Carolina and Evanston, Illinois, to the states of New York and California, whose task force just decided that only “Black Californians who can prove a direct lineage to enslaved ancestors” will be eligible for reparations — it’s no surprise that the country’s Blackest big city has also found its way to the conversation.

“Folks are ready for reconciliation and atonement,” says Denzel McCampbell, a community advocate, aide for U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and former Detroit Charter Revision Commissioner who unsuccessfully ran on the November 2021 ballot for City Clerk. Ready, he says, “for the city’s institutions and the folks who have been in city government” to finally come clean and repair the damage done by creating such “a racially segregated region.”

Several questions now loom over Proposal R’s victory. Why reparations? What would they accomplish? Are cities the best vehicles for achieving those things? And if so, what is the path for racial and economic justice in Detroit, a city whose history of fiercely enforced segregation is now colliding, and weaving together, with the spiraling inequality of its so-called revival?

The moral questions at the heart of this debate echo much older and newly electrified ones about the foundations of both this country’s and city’s prosperity: What, and most importantly who, was destroyed in order to achieve that prosperity? And what do we owe to those still living through, as Malcolm X put it in his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” “an American nightmare”?

The basic case for reparations

In their recent book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen argue for reparations based on “three phases of injustice: slavery, American apartheid (Jim Crow), and the combined effects of present-day discrimination and the ongoing deprecation of Black lives.”

We can illustrate these phases with a simple timeline: slave labor camps ruled the South for 250 years. Following that, and outside the brief glow of genuine multiracial democracy during Reconstruction, the freedom that followed was almost worse than nothing. The Confederacy was officially beaten, but by 1877 Southern slave aristocrats were back in power as if the war had never happened.

Newly freed Black people weren’t only abandoned by the federal government. They weren’t even left to figure things out on their own, which would have been a sad improvement on what actually happened. Instead, they were terrorized into submission through 100 years of Black Codes and Jim Crow tyranny. Historian Douglas Blackmon has famously called the system of sharecropping and convict leasing that reigned during those years “slavery by another name.” It was only after the civil rights movement muscled the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress that the United States could even half-seriously be called a real democracy.

It’s a simple and powerful idea: something terrible has happened and we should do everything in our power to fix it.

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But as the authors argue, even that may be too generous. Mountains of research show that discrimination and exploitation of poor, working-, and middle-class Black people continue to touch every aspect of American life, soaking into policing, housing, health care, and corporate offices everywhere.

Put simply: it’s still open season on Black people and their pockets. As Nathan Robinson points out, these inequities in wealth, health, housing, and education have “lasted continuously from the time of slavery to the present day,” showing that elite white Americans have basically “exchanged Black lives for a pile of gold.” Detroit, with its Black majority, is one of the many places where the “three phases of injustice” all crash into each other. “Taken collectively,” Darity and Mullen write, “they are impossible to ignore.”

click to enlarge Supporters of reparations protesting in Washington, D.C. - Shutterstock
Supporters of reparations protesting in Washington, D.C.

Why Detroit?

Darity and Mullen make a powerful case that Black Americans, wherever they are, deserve reparations based on these three criteria. Detroit is an illuminating example. We don’t have to look hard to see how each phase slams into the next, and how devastating the impacts have been for the population.

To start with the obvious, first phase: Black Detroiters are overwhelmingly descendants of the forced laborers who built the foundations of this nation’s incredible wealth. And most of us are only one or two generations removed from the second phase, Jim Crow and Southern apartheid. Toward the end of that phase, between 1910-1970, millions of ordinary Black people undertook hopeful and uncertain journeys on the Great Migration northward. Importantly, this isn’t ancient history, or even the distant past. Many of our parents and grandparents hopped on the first trains they could to escape the nightmares of Southern agriculture, only to be boxed into cramped, deteriorating slums when they arrived North.

I recently spoke with Willie Smith Jr., an 81 year-old Arkansas native who moved to Michigan at 18 to find work. Smith is the son of former sharecroppers, a word that hides a brutal system of debt bondage that entangled millions of Black farmers deep into the 20th century. After his mother remarried, she and Smith’s stepfather became independent farmers. Decades later, in 2010, Smith and his siblings received what could be called a small reparations payment because of discrimination his family, and countless others, faced from the federal government.

For Smith, it began in 1998. He had just retired from Consumers Energy after 35 years, and decided to move back to Arkansas. “I bought a farm and I worked on that farm for the pleasure of it,” he says. He also wanted to spend what precious time he could with his mother. “My mother came to me and asked me if I’d heard that money was available for Black farmers for discrimination. I told her no, and she said ‘I’d like for you to check into it.’” After navigating a dizzying verification system, Smith and his siblings eventually received a $25,000 payout from the U.S. government as part of the landmark Pigford v. Glickman settlement, a class-action lawsuit alleging that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) discriminated against African-American farmers as it handed out loans and assistance between 1981 and 1996.

White wealth towers above Black wealth, with the typical white family worth about eight times the typical Black one.

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Smith grew up in “the Emmett Till era in the South,” he tells Metro Times. “We knew where we stood. Any treatment that you might think of … we experienced it.” But he also doesn’t have any glowing nostalgia for the North. “I saw just as much discrimination in Flint as I did in Pine Bluff,” he says while recounting his Michigan years. “I heard the word nigger more [there] than I did in Pine Bluff … That's why I was not reluctant to come back to Arkansas.”

Smith’s story is illuminating on multiple levels. First, it shows that targeted reparations for the descendants of oppressed people is doable, and in fact, has already been done. Second, it serves as another reminder that we’re talking about very recent events and their ramifications. Plus, it underscores that when it comes to Black welfare, the alleged differences between Northern and Southern life have mostly been utter delusions.

To this day, Black Detroiters face a totally lopsided terrain of residential, employment, health, and economic pain.

In 2020, then Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield sponsored a reparations resolution echoing this painful history. “The Detroit City Council,” the resolution states, “strongly supports reparations for centuries of human enslavement and post-emancipation systemic discrimination and racism.” A follow-up report from the City’s Legislative Policy Division hammered this point too, citing “enslavement,” along with “Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement … as well as national policies like redlining through mortgage discrimination, de facto segregation … and today’s racial injustices continuing right up to the present moment after the murder of George Floyd, the Flint River scandal and water shut offs in Detroit.”

click to enlarge Councilwoman Mary Sheffield speaks at Detroit Center for Innovation press conference in December. - City of Detroit, Flickr
City of Detroit, Flickr
Councilwoman Mary Sheffield speaks at Detroit Center for Innovation press conference in December.

It’s the combination of these second and third phases — the recent and ongoing robbery and persecution of Black communities — that add enormous weight to reparations claims in places like Detroit.

So we should look a little more closely here, beginning with housing. Throughout the 20th century, residential segregation was national policy. In the post-World War II boom, public housing agencies gave out generous mortgage guarantees in white communities while denying them in Black ones. In order to seal the deal, racial zoning and restrictive neighborhood covenants kept white homes in white hands.

These communities clung to their benefits fiercely. Vigilantes in “Sundown Towns” like Warren, the Grosse Pointes, Birmingham, and others zealously guarded their borders for decades. If a Black family tried to cross the invisible but nearly immovable color line, riots, shootings, and bombings were known to follow.

With “no other choice, no other place to go,” as one advocate put it in a 1973 Congressional testimony, private developers, realtors, and bankers were free to exploit poor and working-class Black people.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor details this and more in her book Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. The public sector rightfully gets a bad rap for advancing housing segregation. But as Yamahtta-Taylor explains, housing officials were following the blueprint of the private real estate industry, which ran realtors who broke the color line out of business and made a killing offering atrocious housing at insane prices to desperate Black families in a vast “conspiracy to defraud poor Black buyers.” Yamahtta-Taylor cites a Free Press article from 1972, in which one eastsider described appalling living conditions, from “rat infestation to holes in the ceiling.” As Steve Neavling has covered extensively for Metro Times, these neighborhoods “became magnets for industrial polluters, where factories continue to spew harmful emissions.”

And like other Black cities across the country, historic and cherished Detroit communities like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were decimated by interstate highway construction in the 1950s and ’60s. As Rev. JoAnn Watson, a Professor at Wayne County Community College District and former councilmember, put it in an email to Metro Times, “350 Black Businesses catalyzed prosperity, ownership, employment and commerce in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley until the Eisenhower Freeway Expansion uprooted businesses, residents, and land ownership.” Cheered by many in seats of power, the freeway represented an “economic/cultural upheaval that decimated Detroit's Black Economy,” Rev. Watson adds. “Reparations should provide recompense and acknowledgment of a debt long overdue.”

To be clear then: Detroit’s once chalky-white suburbs, and the highways that led there, were really just an enormously effective welfare program that Black people were excluded from. The outcome was devastating: Black families were locked into crumbling ghettos with pitiful city services and robbed of both decent housing and the wealth-building opportunity that housing supposedly represents for generations. And on top of this, as political scientist Ira Katznelson explains in When Affirmative Action Was White, Black people were shut out of many of the New Deal’s admirable and vital social welfare benefits despite being taxed like everyone else. Plainly put, this was a massive heist of Black wealth.

Importantly though, the nightmare didn’t stop just because the 1968 Fair Housing Act ended official segregation. Remember the Great Recession? One of Yamahtta-Taylor’s key insights is that these Black neighborhoods’ poor condition “became the basis on which new lenders … could still continue to treat Black homeowners differently.” Black neighborhoods blocked from developing housing wealth and robbed of what little savings they had in the 20th century became the infamous “subprime” neighborhoods of the early 2000s.

This was done deliberately and enthusiastically. Former Wells Fargo employees revealed that the bank’s loan officers referred to Black families as “mud people,” and tricked them into subprime lending they called “ghetto loans.” During this time, a Center for Responsible Lending study found that Black borrowers with a credit score of 660 and up were more than three times as likely to get a subprime loan than white borrowers with the same score.

The housing bubble and the crash that followed blew up the global economy. And because of the racist con games of banking and real estate “vampire squid,” as Matt Taibbi once called them, Black communities were more combustible than others. According to researchers from Brandeis University, “half the collective wealth of African-American families was stripped away during the Great Recession.” Decades of already thin progress were pounded to dust.

This was especially agonizing for places like Detroit, where one-third of properties have been foreclosed on since 2008. Since 2000, “a wave of foreclosures, and an increase in vacancy” has wiped out “a substantial amount of wealth across the city,” according to a recent Detroit Future City report.

The systemic problems persist. On Saturday, Jan. 22, more than 700 people attended a Virtual People’s Forum hosted by the Coalition for Property Tax Justice. It’s an unbelievable turnout until you realize how horrifically real and widespread the pain is that brought them together.

As law professor Bernadette Atuahene details in a study rightly titled “Predatory Cities,” one in four Detroit properties were foreclosed on between 2011 and 2015 after failing to pay “systematically and illegally inflated” property tax bills, equalling more than 100,000 homes and incalculable human suffering. In response, the Coalition for Property Tax Justice is demanding a Compensation Ordinance that forces the city to “right the wrongs of its past” and “pay back” the “illegally inflated property taxes that have robbed Detroit homeowners of $600 million.”

“We know that the city can put something together and give us back what they took from us,” Sonja Bennet said at the forum. Bennet is a Community Legal Advocate with Detroit Justice Center, and got involved after learning that her own foreclosure was unconstitutional. “We’re not here today just to talk. We are here to make sure that the city makes it right.”

It’s a simple and powerful idea: something terrible has happened and we should do everything in our power to fix it. The argument is so clear and morally undeniable that Mayor Duggan was forced to respond at a press conference days later. Within hours, the coalition was ready with a counter-response of their own.

Citing data that property values across the city rose 31% last year, the mayor argued, “A lot of families are far better off than they were just a few years ago. One end of the city to the other, we saw property values grow.”

He added, “Home values in nearly every neighborhood are rising and helping to build new wealth, without significant tax increases. These numbers show that while there is still a lot of work to do, the city’s revitalization has reached nearly every corner of our city.” Duggan was in apparent disbelief that anyone could view rising home values with anything but enthusiasm, despite the fact that this means little to the majority of Detroiters who now rent, and the tens of thousands who were illegally evicted and will never get to swim in the money pool of the mayor’s imagination.

Calling out the mayor’s “bold-faced lies,” Bernadette Athuahene, a professor of law at Chicago-Kent College, responded that publicly available data shows that Detroiters still face “a situation … where the lowest value homes are being illegally assessed.” She also described Duggan’s use of average home values as “fancy footwork” to make the mayor look good and distract from the underlying reality. “Averages look good, but that's because the higher values are being under-assessed and the lower values are being overassessed,” she said, adding, “this is what we call regressivity,” which is inconvenient for the political and business elite aggressively branding the city’s so-called comeback as one that lifts all boats equally.

“These kinds of disingenuous moves had me heartbroken, because the people of Detroit deserve more,” she said.

So it isn’t hard to see how racism continues to strangle Black well-being. Wealth tells the story pretty clearly. White wealth towers above Black wealth, with the typical white family worth about eight times the typical Black one. (And as the People’s Policy Project points out, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated among the very richest white people. Translation: this bleak situation requires “tackling both racial and class inequality simultaneously.”) Meanwhile, Black poverty and unemployment have doubled the national average for generations. And it’s even more grim in Detroit, where a third live in poverty and at least 11 percent of Black residents remain unemployed. In more human terms, 48% of Detroit’s families don’t have access to enough food. And most sinister of all, the neighborhood you live in can subtract decades from your life. Residents in some Detroit neighborhoods can expect to live 20 years less, on average, than residents 20 miles northwest in posh West Bloomfield ones, 67.8 years compared to 87. At the same time, the city’s leadership continues to faithfully shovel massive tax breaks to corporate giants and private developers, leaving little for the general welfare of everyday Detroiters. During the pandemic, while thousands of Black Detroiters have died who wouldn’t have in a more equal country, the city’s wealthiest oligarch has seen his net worth rise more than $40 billion.

Nowadays, one of two explanations is given for why Black communities can’t catch a break. In the first version, racism is terrible, of course, but Black cultural dysfunction is what’s really devouring Black communities from the inside out. You can hear this story from conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Andrew Sullivan, and softer but still quite disturbing traces of it from liberals like Joe Biden. If Black pain is the result of the community’s moral slide to hell, the country can conveniently shake its head and whisper “what a shame.”

But what if that misfortune is what happens when a slave empire transforms into an agrarian apartheid hell? And when the most important decisions in a deeply segregated and unequal country, in which the easiest way to get paid is by exploiting the least powerful, are made by profit-driven corporations and their trusty sidekicks in office? If this version is correct, then the voices above are either horribly misguided or lying. And it points undeniably and unmistakably toward reparations.

“It’s reparations or bust for me now,” says Lauren Hood, a native Detroiter and a member of the unofficial steering committee for Proposal R’s public outreach.

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Lauren Hood, a native Detroiter and a member of the unofficial steering committee for Proposal R’s public outreach, highlights the importance of “starting with an acknowledgment … having government and institutions say we did something wrong,” she tells Metro Times. “And that’s why your neighborhood looks like it does. Not because you’re lazy, or incapable, or, you know, inherently bad. But because we did that.”

Hood, who is also chair of the City Planning Commission and Director of the Institute for Afro Urbanism, has thought a lot about how unmasking the right culprit forces us to redraw our maps to a better world. As uprisings swept the country following George Floyd’s murder, it dawned on Hood that her work on neighborhood planning studies for “equitable development” were “not going to cut it.” She puts it bluntly: enriching a few Black developers is “not a worthy response to what we just saw happen … It’s reparations or bust for me now.”

Driving the point home, Hood draws a clear line between the happy-go-lucky recovery story told by the city, and what real improvement for average Detroiters requires.

“The comeback story is really focused on the landscape, new businesses, and new buildings,” Hood says. “Reparations forces us to consider what’s happening to people.”

click to enlarge Mayor Mike Duggan touts new development at General Motors' Factory Zero during his 2022 State of the City address. - City of Detroit, Flickr
City of Detroit, Flickr
Mayor Mike Duggan touts new development at General Motors' Factory Zero during his 2022 State of the City address.

The history of the reparations movement

Calls for reparations began before the South even surrendered. As Darity Jr. and Mullen lay out in From Here to Equality, Black people didn’t imagine the promise of forty acres and a mule. Almost the opposite. All throughout the Civil War, and epitomized in a January 1865 meeting in Savannah, Georgia, between Union General William T. Sherman and 20 Black leaders, Black people were demanding some version of land and wealth redistribution from the collapsing slave empire. Led by Reverend Garrison Frazier, the group put it plainly: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land and turn and till it by our own labor,” Frazier told Sherman. After all, unpaid Black labor had been the main engine of U.S. economic prosperity, enriching not only the slave labor camps in the south, but also Northern businessmen, investment bankers, and railroad barons who depended on cotton and unpaid labor to make their fortunes. For free and enslaved Black people, as well as the abolitionist movement and Radical Republicans in Congress, it made obvious sense that some slice of confiscated Confederate lands should be handed over to the people who made them profitable in the first place.

And it happened. Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, which specified roughly 5.3 million acres of land for Black resettlement, but only allotted roughly 400,000, lasted about two seconds before it was snuffed out by President Andrew Johnson. If you blinked, you missed it. But it’s important to note that a form of reparations was in fact dangled, promised, and snatched away by the federal government. This was one of many “critical forks in the American historical road” they write, where “the wrong path was taken.”

In the more than 150 years since, Black people, through civil society and mutual aid organizations, have doggedly pursued reparations through every imaginable means, including pleas to white church and civil institutions, class action lawsuits, and local, state, and federal legislation.

This history marched right up to the doorstep of Black Detroit. Or rather, Black Detroiters marched on history. In spring 1969, civil rights activist James Forman and the militant members of Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers chose Detroit as the place to introduce their “Black Manifesto,” taking over, as historian Robin Kelley put it, “a liberal community development conference” to present their demands for $500 million in reparations.

In the decades ahead, famed Detroit realtor and reparations champion Raymond “Reparations Ray” Jenkins helped co-found the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), which is still active today. Rev. Watson, the former co-chair on N’COBRA, whose own lengthy record on pushing for reparations could be the subject of his own profile, tells Metro Times that Ray’s colorful nickname “was given” to him “by yours truly, when he called into a talk show I hosted” — Wake Up Detroit! on WCHB, WGPR, and WHPR — “every day, 5 days a week, discussing only one topic: reparations.”

Jenkins and N’COBRA are widely known for pushing the late Congressman John Conyers to sponsor H.R. 40 in 1989, which he introduced in every Congress that followed for nearly 30 years. With some key differences, H.R. 40 is basically Proposal R’s nationally focused elder. Passed through the Judiciary Committee last year and basically frozen there, H.R. 40 calls for exploring reparations at the federal level.

What happens next?

It’s the question that haunts every plea for reparations. “You’ve shown me that it makes sense, but how do you propose we do it?”

Luckily, everyone from scholars to activists to policy experts have thought hard about this. Darity and Mullen devote the final chapter of their book to examining the soundness of various reparations designs. In the end, they settle on a federal program to close the colossal racial wealth gap as the best option. Using the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, one estimate they cite finds that the mean household gap between Black and white families of four is “about $795,000,” for a “total reparations bill of $7.95 trillion.” In a later piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer, they estimate a price tag of “at least $11 trillion or an allocation of upward of $360,000 to each of 40 million eligible recipients.”

This is an unfathomable sum to the average person, but pretty reasonable for a fabulously wealthy nation. For perspective, this is just half the U.S. national income of $21.2 trillion (defined as the amount of money earned within a country in a given year). It’s also worth remembering how easily cannons of money are fired upward in this country. During the Great Recession, the Federal Reserve handed more than $1 trillion to investment banks overnight. And throughout the current plague, they’ve forked over more than $8 trillion in backup to financial giants (twice what went to ordinary people).

“Black reparations are not only morally justified, but practicable,” Darity and Mullen conclude.

Critics of reparations like to pretend that advocates don’t have the foggiest idea what they’re doing. In reality, the problem is that there’s an abundance of ideas, but American political leadership lacks the courage to do anything with them.

“The comeback story is really focused on the landscape, new businesses and new buildings,” Hood says. “Reparations forces us to consider what’s happening to people.”

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Darity and Mullen go on to offer several ideas for how the money could be distributed (and to whom) under “a portfolio of reparations.” There’s no shortage of options: from direct payments and education endowments to trust funds where money is set aside for eligible Black people to apply for grants to various projects. Importantly, they stress that “for both symbolic and substantive reasons, an effective program of restitution must include direct payments to eligible recipients.”

This is where a clear line can be drawn between federal and local designs. Only the federal government can direct the massive (but manageable) sums of cash we’d need to deliver real reparations. Cities are significantly more restrained in what they can do. For example, the most direct blueprint for what’s possible in Detroit comes from Evanston, Illinois, where the local government became the first in the United States to approve reparations. Passed last March, the plan provides housing grants up to $25,000 with funds from cannabis sales to qualified residents.

While many residents and national media have been understandably excited about the program, there’s been heavy criticism of the plan from within Evanston’s Black community. Activists argue that the sum from cannabis sales is, essentially, unreliable chump change. They’ve also echoed Darrity and Mullen’s position that real reparations should come as direct cash payments to the people who’ve been so horrifically mistreated over the course of this country’s history, not as grant money that may ultimately stuff the pockets of the same real estate sharks and investment banks that left them penniless in the first place.

Darity and Mullen have criticized the local approach directly. It’s “a good step,” they write about Evanston in a Washington Post piece, but “this is a housing voucher program, not reparations.” They go on to argue that well-intentioned, cash-strapped cities risk drawing “momentum” away from federal programs that can make a real dent in Black suffering.

In response, McCampbell points out that “There has been harm done to Black folks on every level of government and in every corner of this country.” But he agrees with Darity and Mullen up to a point. “The federal government has the most ability to provide reparations,” he says. Still, “that does not absolve the city of Detroit” or the state of Michigan from responsibility for accelerating and intensifying Black pain. Instead, he says, “I would argue that every level of government in this country should be providing reparations.”

At this time, Detroit is considering a similar path to Evanston, with housing grants reportedly on the table. But it’s way too early to say. The City Council still has to appoint the task force, which will then study the issue before making any recommendations. Key decisions about the task force, from its size to the professional backgrounds and racial identities of its members, and how deep their connections to the city run, will flow from the input of everyday Detroiters. According to Hood, this level of participation is vital to ensuring the process includes what Detroiters have eternally lacked: real decision-making power.

“That's why Sheffield’s team didn’t really want to be prescriptive,” Hood says. “The resolution says the City Council can just establish it … but they wanted to give people a chance to weigh in” on every “aspect of the process.”

On top of that, Hood acknowledges that because “it took us a couple hundred years to get here, it’s gonna take a long time to get us out.”

So many Detroiters “are faced with the daily struggle of keeping their water on or keeping food on the table,” Hood says, adding, “There’s a lot of tension between trying to get something done now, so that the public can see that there’s progress, and doing something worthy.” A highly visible and public process shows “people that there is traction and movement.”

And as Neavling wrote for Metro Times back in July, “the initiative faces an uncertain future.” Specifically, “The Michigan Constitution bars the use of tax dollars for racially exclusive purposes. And a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2006 prevents preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity.”

But there are things we can say with some certainty, both about Proposal R and its place in a changing city. For one, local officials have already acknowledged that a serious reparations program, one that can actually remedy the economic side of racism’s toll, can only be carried out by the federal government. For them, these local experiments aren’t a substitute. They’re one part of a tightly knit web. Sheffield’s resolution, for example, calls for “a strong and sufficient U.S. federal government program funding commitment to reparations” that is “democratically administered at the local level.”

We also know something about the role of ordinary people in this. McCampbell explains that the ultimate success of any reparations plan must take the same route that brought it to the nation’s attention in the first place: grassroots organizing.

“We got to make sure that there’s concrete action and teeth … this can’t be a report or proposals that sit there and collect dust,” he says, adding that there must be “a sustained push on every level” to make sure city leaders carry out the people’s wishes.

Proposal R proves that this kind of “organizing works,” McCampbell says. And it has a long, rich history.

On the one hand, locally rooted organizations like N’COBRA and the Reparations Labor Union have been pressing the issue for years. Long before any presidential candidates, national press, or local officials paid serious attention to it, the reparations flame was kept alive by dedicated activists.

It was those same activists, and well-organized regular people, who made local and national elites see the writing on the wall.

Detroit’s Charter Revision Commission is a shining example. As the body was considering changes to the city’s governing document, they received more than 500 proposals from across the city. After several rounds of community input, these ideas were bundled into Proposal P. P’s vision was sweeping and bold: the progressive package would have established a right to basic human goods like food, water, housing, recreation, and transportation. Notably, Proposal P also included a reparations task force. As I wrote in October, Prop P would have struck a significant blow against the city’s towering racial and economic inequality.

The response from corporate and political elites was swift and brutal. Organizers had spent two years talking with residents about their needs and hopes for the city. But they were badly outspent, and ultimately crushed, by a web of Duggan-aligned dark money groups with Orwellian names like “Committee to Protect Detroit’s Future” and “Detroiters Protecting Our Future.” With deep corporate pockets at their disposal, these groups cannibalized the airwaves with vague and meaningless claims that Prop P was a “Problem.” That message was eerie enough to defeat the most serious attempt we’ve seen in generations to make Detroit more equal. It’s also worth mentioning Proposal S, which would have amended the city charter and allowed Detroit citizens to vote on how tax dollars are appropriated, also failed with 53% voting no. Proposal S was also met with stiff opposition, though less severe than P.

But for McCambell, none of this erases the undeniable reality at the heart of life in the city, reflected in both Proposal P and R. “I think there is still a tale of two cities in Detroit,” he says. “You wouldn’t have 500 detailed proposals if there was this rosy picture of the city, right? There are deep inequalities that still exist in the city of Detroit. And you will find that folks across the city want more.”

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About The Author

Eli Day

Eli Day is a Detroit native. He writes about politics, history, and racial and economic justice. His work has been featured in The American Prospect, New Republic, In These Times, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and Vox, among others.
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