Flint and Detroit Are at the Forefront of the National Reparations Discussion

The push for reparations is not a new fight, nor is it an abstract concept. It is a quest for tangible justice. Rooted deeply in our American narrative, it’s about repairing the generational harm inflicted upon Black people through slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, and a host of other systemic injustices.

America has long grappled with the complexities of its original sin. It was Detroit’s own Congressman John Conyers who ignited the modern national conversation on reparations on the federal level in 1989 and reintroduced the discussion in every Congress session until his retirement in 2017 with House Resolution 40, calling for a detailed study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for reparative justice. House Resolution 40 was more than just a piece of legislation; it was an unflinching call to confront the deeply rooted injustices that Black people have faced since the first slaves arrived on American shores in 1619. But the movement’s footprints trace even further back in time, with trailblazers like Callie House in the early 1900s and Queen Mother Audley Moore in the mid-20th century.

In 2021, the City of Detroit birthed the Detroit Reparations Task Force, a 13-member body that was brought into existence through a ballot initiative approved by an overwhelming 80% of Detroiters. In a city that has a history steeped in racial discrimination, redlining, and economic hardship disproportionately affecting its Black residents, the mission is clear: recommend housing and economic development programs that directly benefit the Black community. “Every aspect of American life benefited from the building blocks of free labor for hundreds of years,” said Janis Hazel, a member of the Detroit Reparations Task Force housing subcommittee. “There need to be cash transfer to Black Americans, descendants of enslaved people, land need to be reappropriated and reallocated first to the Indigenous people that it was stolen from and then to Black Americans. Black people should not have to pay taxes for over 250 years plus 100 years for segregation and Jim Crow. Until that debt is paid off, Black Americans should not be paying any sales tax, property tax, or income tax. I think that Black Americans should be allowed to go to any educational institution from K-12 and higher learning because we were denied and prohibited from getting an education.”

Recent data from the University of Michigan’s Center for Racial Justice reveals a nuanced stance among Flint residents on the topic of reparations for Black Americans. The study, conducted by the Michigan Metro Area Communities Study, indicates that while 53% of Flint residents are in favor of governments redressing historical racial injustices, the nature of the reparative action significantly impacts the levels of support. Specifically, when presented as broad reparations, 22% remain neutral, and another 22% oppose, with 3% uncertain or not responding. Yet, when detailed policies are outlined, 71% of residents back at least one targeted reparative measure. Interestingly, of those initially opposing broad reparations, 30% endorse government-assisted home financing, 26% support postsecondary education funding, another 26% favor free healthcare, and 17% are amenable to direct cash payments for Black Americans.

Erykah Benson, a University of Michigan Department of Sociology Ph.D. student and research fellow for the Center of Racial Justice is one of the spearheads of this study.

“Based on our report, we believe that language matters for the framing of reparative policies. Specifically in our survey we defined reparations first as the more general definition of reparations which we defined as, reparations to account for the historic impacts of slavery and the ongoing discriminations,” she shared. “However, throughout the survey we then end up asking Flint residents for various types of reparations people might see like housing, healthcare, or education, and when we do specify those types of amends that’s when we actually see a greater amount of support. So, the framing of what reparations are for really does matter.”

The Flint water crisis stands as one of the most glaring contemporary examples of structural racism in action. The city’s predominantly Black and economically disadvantaged population was subjected to lead-contaminated drinking water due to cost-cutting measures and oversight failures. The crisis, which began in 2014 and has had long-term health implications for its residents, exemplifies how systemic inequities can disproportionately harm communities of color. It highlights the urgent need for reparative actions not just for historical injustices but for ongoing disparities that continue to afflict marginalized communities today. Flint residents’ views on reparations were significantly influenced by factors such as race, education, and income. Support for reparative actions for Black Americans was notably higher among Black residents, those with a higher income bracket, and individuals with advanced education. Of Flint’s population, which exceeds 79,800, approximately 57% identify as Black, while 33% are white. A notable 67% of Black residents in the city are in favor of reparations, in contrast to 31% of the white populace.

“Because the Flint water crisis is one the most striking examples of how structural racism exists today, I wouldn’t be surprised that there is a strong connection between those who have been heavily impacted by the water crisis and their perceptions of the justice that needs to be served,” Benson said.

The concept of reparations is rooted in the simple yet profound idea that there is a debt to be paid for the forced labor that built this nation’s wealth, for the sanctioned discrimination that followed emancipation, and for the policies that have economically and psychologically damaged multiple generations of African Americans. And that debt is not just moral or spiritual; it is economic and institutional.

“Reparations is a national issue, the roots of why we may need reparations specifically the legacy of slavery, is a part of a national history,” shared Benson. “But what we see throughout history is that U.S. cities become an important part of that story as many Black Americans end up living in major urban areas and because of that, that’s where we see a lot of the political momentum occurring at the local level that’s in majority Black cities like Flint and Detroit which is why see the emergence of reparations task forces in these areas.”

Reparations have been recognized globally as a legitimate means of redress. In 1988, the U.S. government issued reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Germany has paid reparations to Holocaust survivors. So, the concept isn’t foreign; what has been missing is the collective will to apply this principle to the descendants of African slaves and the victims of post-slavery discrimination in America.

The City of Detroit bears the deep scars of systemic racism, and nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of housing. Post-World War II, Detroit became the epitome of the American dream for some, but that dream was systematically denied to its Black residents. While the GI Bill opened doors to homeownership for white veterans, discriminatory practices like redlining effectively bolted those doors shut for Black families. Banks would literally draw lines on maps, marking off areas where they would not provide loans—neighborhoods that were predominantly Black. The inability to secure loans condemned these communities to cycles of poverty and disrepair.

And let’s not forget about blockbusting, a devious practice by real estate agents aimed at stoking racial fears among white homeowners to get them to sell their properties at low prices, only to turn around and sell those homes to Black families at inflated rates. This not only segregated Detroit further but also left Black families with homes whose values were artificially inflated, thereby making upward mobility nearly impossible.

Urban renewal and gentrification have been the modern twins of these historically discriminatory practices. What was touted as neighborhood “improvement” projects often resulted in the forceful displacement of Black families. The development of highways, entertainment districts, and commercial complexes might have elevated the city’s profile, but they also destroyed established Black neighborhoods, scattering communities and erasing decades, if not centuries, of culture and history.

“In the city of Detroit, people would hear reparations and think, ‘oh I’m going to get a check,’ and that may be the case, but it would also take the form of programs focused on housing initiatives to combat some of the effects of the past racially prejudice practices,” said Hazel. “So, it might take the form of money, tax abatement, mortgage downpayment assistance, or a number of things because we have look at the redlining that happened and is still happening, blockbusting, denial of mortgages, gentrification and urban renewal that displaced Black people. We hope that people will come to our meetings to give insight on their own families who faced these prejudices for oral reports to be able to present recommendations.”

The history of housing discrimination in Detroit is not just a series of isolated incidents; it’s a carefully woven tapestry of systemic disenfranchisement. These policies didn’t just deny Black Detroiters a piece of land; they denied families the opportunity to accumulate generational wealth, access better education, and live healthier lives. The impact of these discriminatory housing policies is a generational curse, one that the Reparations Task Force aims to address. It’s not just about providing a house; it’s about rebuilding a home, a community, and, ultimately, a life.

The late Dr. Rev. Joanne Watson, who was a proud member of the task force and an advocate whose commitment to the cause was nothing short of legendary, stood firmly on the premise that reparations are not a handout or a one-time check; it’s about restoring a people and a community. This notion deeply aligns with Detroit’s task force mandate to focus on housing and economic development, addressing both immediate and generational impacts of discrimination. “It is long overdue for the assessment and creation of meaningful and tangible economic benefits to repair the systemic disadvantages and damages that have taken place in this city and in this country for generations. I am continually working with the Taskforce to ensure progress is being made with respect to the passing of Detroit icon and activist JoAnn Watson. We are all working diligently to ensure there is movement within this effort and in her honor.” Proclaimed Council President Mary Sheffield.

So where are we now? Despite overwhelming support from Detroit’s residents and a clear mandate, progress has been painfully slow. Only two subcommittees—the Housing Subcommittee and Health Committee—have convened, according to Hazel. “There has been no public meeting since August 5, 2023.” Hazel mentions that the next public reparations task force meeting is set for December. Detroit’s Black community is not just waiting for recommendations; they are waiting for justice, economic empowerment, and opportunities that have been denied to them historically and systematically.

“Challenges with this task force are engaging the public with outreach and even educational seminars so the public can know what we’re looking for. We have seen Evanston, IL deliver their reparations report and actually start dispensing cash up to $25K to those people who could prove that their ancestors were discriminated against in housing,” shared Hazel. “They had a reparations fund initially of $10M for adults to use and that was funded through their cannabis sales tax revenue to focus on HUD ownership. So, there are roadmaps out there of other municipalities that have gone through the process and made recommendations and that’s what the City of Detroit task force endeavors to do.”

What does the struggle for reparations mean for the future of Black people, not just in Detroit but in America as a whole? It means finally acknowledging that economic disparity is not a result of individual failings but systemic ones. It means taking steps to balance scales that have been tipped for centuries. It’s not just about checks; it’s about changing systems. It’s about education, housing, health services, job opportunities, and so much more.


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