‘We have to take a first step’: inside the fight for reparations in America

In a new documentary, politicians and activists work to build a program to pay back Black Americans for the lasting legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination

In the heated debate over reparations in the US, the daunting task before those fighting for compensation for Black Americans is twofold.

Their first challenge is justifying to those against reparations what has already been documented throughout history time and time again: that the lasting legacy of slavery, and the racism and discrimination tied to it, stretches centuries after the Emancipation Proclamation and continues to harm Black Americans today.

The second is proving that the messy and complicated process of meting out this restitution, be it monetary or through policy – an endeavor some economic experts have estimated could result in tens of millions of dollars being paid out to millions of Black Americans – is even possible.

In The Big Payback, a documentary premiering on PBS on Martin Luther King Day, the co-directors Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow set out to meet both these challenges head-on. The film-makers kick off with a rapid-fire introduction of all the salient points that have been made over and over again about how the systems in place have upheld slavery’s legacy and why reparations are necessary: Jim Crow, redlining, discriminatory housing policies, the racial poverty divide, the criminal justice system, oppressive voting laws, police shootings.

The film then peels off to follow two efforts for reparations: those of the congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee on the federal level to move out of the judiciary committee a bill calling for the creation of a commission to study reparations proposals, and the historic work of Robin Rue Simmons, a former alderwoman in Evanston, Illinois.

In 2019, Evanston became the first city in the country to guarantee funding – up to $10m – for reparations for African American residents. What came next was more than a year of public meetings, discussion, expert testimony and legal review to determine not just what form those funds would take, but who would be eligible to receive them.

“When we first started, [the film] could only be a case for reparations because it hadn’t been done,” Alexander told the Guardian. “But then suddenly, in those few months, that young alderwoman did something that has never happened in American history, and we were able to catch it. It was like being with Rosa Parks on the bus.”

Interviews with community members highlighted just how complex and painstaking the process is to measure the breadth of historic injustices suffered by the descendants of slavery, and just how difficult it is to put a monetary value on that suffering. One man, Mark Dykes, spoke of the long-term traumatic impact of having to adjust behaviors to avoid racial violence or discrimination.

“Looking back at what my dad had to go through back in the south during Jim Crow, you could literally be beaten and killed for standing up for yourself,” he said. “It took me a long time to understand that my dad was protecting me by shuffling his feet and skinning and grinning in front of the white man.”

Simmons said: “There’s no one form of repair that can satisfy the totality of the harms of Black people and the crimes against the humanity of Black people in this nation.”

But she said that wasn’t the point to get stuck on. What she hopes viewers will take away from watching her fight for reparations in this documentary is that what matters is that you have to start somewhere – and the time to start is now.

Simmons faced pushback when she and other stakeholders proposed that the first piece of reparations take the form of a $400,000 housing grant program. The documentary captured some of Simmons’s critics within Evanston’s Black community, who claimed the program was not reparations, but just another social program. Some said Black Americans deserved cash payouts with no strings attached. Alderman Cicely Fleming, who cast the lone vote against the measure, said the program did not allow people to “dictate the terms of how they are repaired”.

The decision to focus on reparations first on housing came after numerous community meetings, in which “the consensus overwhelmingly came out with housing as the area of the most harm and the most demand for repair”, Simmons said. A big part of the process was ensuring that these reparations had legal standing – that they could not be challenged in court – and the local historian Dino Robinson Jr was able to compile a number of discriminatory Evanston zoning laws from 1919 and 1969 that showed how the Black community in the city was harmed.

Seated people smiling
Local supporters of reparations attend town hall in Evanston. Photograph: The Big Payback, LLC

The housing grant awards eligible residents up to $25,000 to be used for a down payment on a home or closing cost assistance within the city, or to help pay for repairs, the mortgage principal, interest or late penalties on Evanston property. That means if each applicant received the maximum $25,000 grant, only 16 families or individuals – in a city with a Black population of 12,000 – would receive a check. Last year, the city selected 16 applicants from a pool of 122 in a random lottery. The program originally received more than 600 applicants, but only 122 fell under the parameters of those who had either lived through or were descended from those who lived through discriminatory housing laws in Evanston.

Simmons has heard all the criticisms of the program – that its scope is too narrow, that the Black community deserved more – but she has maintained that when it comes to reparations, you need to start somewhere. And this is just the beginning.

“To want cash and not a housing benefit is not wrong. The challenge that I would give someone is: how do we have both?” she said. “How do we have all? How do we have cash and housing and education and so on? That’s what we’re doing and that’s what we’re looking for as repair. But we have to recognize that we have to start somewhere. We have to take a first step. We can’t be paralyzed.”

Evanston has since approved an additional $10m for the reparations fund, Simmons said. Meanwhile, FirstRepair – the not-for-profit Simmons started after her office term ended – is working with local communities around the country looking to begin their own reparations process.

With a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, however, the Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee’s efforts to push forward HR40, the reparations bill first introduced 30 years ago, will likely be futile. Simmons and the film-makers, however, are calling for Joe Biden to form a reparations commission via executive order.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee sits with Evanston, IL Alderwoman, Robin Rue Simmons, in the congresswoman’s Washington DC office
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee sits with Robin Rue Simmons, in the congresswoman’s Washington DC office. Photograph: The Big Payback, LLC

Because like the reparations debate, the issue here is twofold. Yes, the main focus of reparations is for Black Americans to receive the restitution to which they are entitled. But the other side of the coin is for the institutions that committed the wrongdoing – whether they be local municipalities or the federal government – to acknowledge the hurt they inflicted. While it can begin on a local level, the federal government must also take responsibility and make reparations to Black Americans.

“The debt resides within the fabric of America,” Alexander said. “If you see how it resides within DNA within the systems of government, financial systems, education, the criminal justice system, everything that surrounds this land, then there’s no excuse. It’s the government’s debt.”

And despite the uphill battle before them, Simmons remains optimistic.

“We’re seeing it already, in big cities like San Francisco and small towns like Amherst, Massachusetts,” Simmons said. “I hope that they take away from my experience that it is possible to pass what some may have believed as radical, reparative justice policy in their own communities. And that HR40 passing is possible as well.”

  • The Big Payback airs on PBS on 16 January and in the UK and Australia at a later date


Vivian Ho

The GuardianTramp

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