Reparations movement rising, by Julianne Malveaux

12/16/2021, 6 p.m.
The late Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represented Detroit in Congress from 1965 until 2017, introduced HR 40 — The ...
Julianne Malveaux

The late Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represented Detroit in Congress from 1965 until 2017, introduced HR 40 — The Commission to Student and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act— every Congressional session from 1989. He worked to get co-sponsors for the legislation for nearly 30 years, but not even the entire Congressional Black Caucus would co-sponsor. Upon his retirement from Congress, he passed the baton to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who introduced it in the current session of Congress.

Thanks to her efforts and those of reparations organizations, including the National African American Reparations Commission, or NAARC, and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, or N’COBRA, the number of co-sponsors approaches 200 members of Congress. With 218, the legislation could pass the U.S. House of Representatives.

Full disclosure. I serve as a NAARC commissioner, as does Kamm Howard, the co-chair of N’COBRA.

With a U.S. Senate dominated by conservative Democrats and obstructionist Republicans, when HR 40 passes in Congress, it is unlikely to pass in the Senate. However, it is essential to acknowledge the enormous progress the reparations movement has experienced since Rep. Conyers first introduced HR 40.

At the time, if you mentioned reparations in some circles, including those dominated by African-Americans, you’d be rewarded with an eye roll and a “reality” check. Movements don’t happen overnight, though, and the reparations movement is rising, thanks to the tireless work of committed activists who have persistently raised the issue.

Robin Rue Simmons, a former alderman in Evanston, Ill., shep- herded reparations legislation in that city and helped design a program that will use money from legal cannabis sales to fund reparations. The program emerges from documentation of the ways local legislation widened the wealth gap between 1919 and 1969 and explicitly targets Evanston residents and their descendants for the initial round of reparations.

Within the next several weeks, 16 families will get $25,000 checks to put a down payment on a home, reduce a mortgage balance or do repairs that increase the value of their homes. While these modest payments do very little to reduce the wealth gap, they improve the wealth position of these families. Evanston has taken a small but revolutionary step in the right direction.

Ms. Simmons chose not to run for re-election, although she would have probably faced only token opposition if she had. Instead, she has been working full time on the issue of local reparations, founding First Repair, an organization focused on helping state and local governments shape reparations initiatives. In early December, First Repair co-convened a symposium, along with NAARC, with state and local reparations leaders. Sixty people from 25 cities, including Boston; Asheville, N.C.; Houston; Denver; Los Angeles; and San Francisco, gathered to discuss their efforts to implement local reparations. Activist and actor Danny Glover spoke at a town hall meeting that included a telephone address by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

The fact that so many cities and states are considering reparations initiatives and appointing reparations commissions is invigorating and encouraging. As Ms. Simmons said, change happens from the bottom up and not the top down. The more cities and states that have reparations conversations, the more awareness those at the top will have that this is an issue that is not going away. Our nation is culpable for the exploitation of enslaved people and their descendants. We have gotten little more than a tepid apology. Our country must do more.

Meanwhile, I’m lifting Ms. Simmons, a 45-year-old leader, activist and tireless reparations advocate. She has dedicated her life to the reparations movement, using the Evanston experience as a blueprint for other municipalities considering reparations.

Thanks to folks like Ms. Simmons, who also a NAARC commissioner, Ms. Howard, Dr. Ron Daniels, Rep. Lee, Mr. Glover and so many others, the reparations movement is rising.

The writer is an economist, author and dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State University, Los Angeles.