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Can Cities Do Reparations Alone?

Governments from Durham to Providence have launched racial equity initiatives, but the long work of restitution can’t stay a local matter.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last week, Durham, North Carolina’s Racial Equity Task Force presented its plan, nearly two years in the making, to “understand the scope and depth of racial inequity in our city and figure out how to overcome it.”

The Durham report is striking in its bluntness and clarity. Rather than relying on clichés about “broken systems,” it identifies, correctly, that what we see before us is a series of systems working as designed. “We must name that our criminal legal system is working as it was designed: to protect white people by controlling people of color,” its authors wrote. “We must name that our housing system is working as it was designed: to create and maintain private white land by controlling the access people of color have to such land.”

It captures the inequities it hopes to address just as starkly. Black North Carolinians are arrested at a rate 2.5 times higher than that of white residents; in Durham, both the maternal and infant mortality rates for Black mothers and infants outpace that of their Latinx, Asian, and white neighbors; and as the city has rapidly expanded over the past decade, it’s been Black neighborhoods, like the historic Hayti, that have been targeted by the city for demolishment and displacement.

With the arrival of the 64-page report, the task force set concrete goals and measures for the city to adopt, including a city-wide restructuring of its health care, education, criminal justice, and economic systems. Part of that restructuring, the task force suggests, should include Durham working in conjunction with other cities to pursue a national plan for reparations. In defining this aim, the task force wrote that any federal program must acknowledge who benefited from slavery, restitute the descendants of those who were enslaved, and provide closure by partnering with them to understand what fair compensation looks like.

Some of the cities involved in that federal push could include local governments in Asheville, North Carolina, and Providence, Rhode Island, which recently announced their intentions to pursue what they are terming “reparations initiatives” for Black residents. Last November, Evanston, Illinois’s city council voted to funnel the first $10 million in revenue collected from its recreational marijuana tax to what it has called its own reparations program. (The city is still formulating a plan as to how the funds will be dispersed or spent.)

These local efforts raise interesting questions about the long work of restitution. Are these local efforts reparations or something else? Can the scope of any municipal plan really rise to the scale of the debt owed?

Following Asheville’s city council resolution, Dr. William Darity Jr., coauthor of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century and a professor at Duke University, told The New York Times that the city’s plan, which did not include direct payments, was inadequate and that it should not be conflated with an actual reparations program. “Piecemeal reparations taken singly or collectively at those levels of government cannot meet the debt for American racial injustice,” he wrote.

A true reparations initiative, Darity and coauthor A. Kirsten Mullen argue in their book, requires federal initiative because it was the United States that failed to deliver on its promised payment to enslaved peoples following emancipation and the Civil War. (Their definition of reparations—the aforementioned steps of acknowledgement, restitution, and closure—was cited at length in the task force’s glossary.)

Scope matters, too. “It should be Black Americans who are descendants of persons who were enslaved in the United States,” Darity told The New Republic. “Those 40-acre land grants were never provided,” he continued. “And for the handful of folks who actually received some of those land grants, they were taken away and restored to the former slaveholders by President Andrew Johnson.”

The Durham proposal, though, may hold more promise. “They seem to have touched all of the relevant bases in terms of local actions that can be taken to try to address racial inequity,” Darity said. And unlike the Asheville resolution, the Durham task force did not call the city-level reforms “reparations” in and of themselves. Rather, the task force suggests that Durham partner with its fellow local governments across the country to push for a national response. “We would like to see our city leadership take an active role in helping push forward national policies aimed at ending the racial wealth gap, including a national reparations program, guaranteed basic income, and raising the minimum wage,” the report’s authors wrote.

The task force also acknowledged its proposals as one step in a much longer process. It was a partial picture by its nature, writing that “dealing with racial inequity is not the mission of one city council or one mayor.” Donna Carrington, the executive director of the Community Empowerment Fund, a nonprofit that works with Durham residents facing housing insecurity, appreciated the task force being upfront about its limitations. But she also said that she was disappointed that housing issues weren’t granted more space, adding that she felt the report needed to offer a wider review of evictor landlords outside of the Durham Housing Authority, or DHA.

“I also dont feel that they really addressed the problems with DHA hard enough,” Carrington wrote. “DHA needs more transparency about what is going on, especially communicating with the homeless system as a source of help to getting people housed.”

Darity’s only critique of the plan was that the task force should have defined the racial wealth gap as the difference between the mean wealth of Black and white residents—as it stands, the report uses the median, which Darity said ignores roughly “97 percent of the wealth that is held by white Americans.” In his testimony for Congress last June on the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act, Darity said that a reparations program would need to set a goal of “moving Black wealth, roughly, from less than $3 trillion to $13 to $14 trillion.”

Darity and Carrington agreed that the task force’s suggested actions for the city and its call for a national reparations program are a welcome, if overdue, sign of change, but both noted that reports and studies do not equate to effective implementation. None of what the Durham task force outlined in terms of systemic issues contributing to the racial wealth gap registered as particularly novel findings. Even City Council member Charlie Reece acknowledged that the report is “a reminder that this city has been failing in many key respects for 151 years.”

Still, Darity recognized that building a consensus for a reparations program will require reports like the one produced by the Durham task force; Asheville’s reparations plan similarly includes funding a study reviewing the city’s current racial wealth gap. The usefulness of such reports is clear: In order to increase the political viability of national reparations, having studies that detail the lingering effects that slavery and both historical and modern segregation have on Black Americans will be crucial in establishing why these societal sins cannot be characterized by conservatives like Mitch McConnell as “something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible.”

What stands out the most about these plans, flaws and all, is how they are all the result of independent, localized pushes by each individual community to reckon with how slavery, segregation, and systemic racism are still holding back their cities. Until we reach a point in time where a national reparations effort isn’t openly laughed off by the president and the majority leader in the Senate, it will be up to local initiatives like these to achieve any sense of accountability, limited though they may be. Task force chair Elaine O’Neal rightfully described the plan as both a “ love letter to Durham” and “an urgent call to action.”

Ensuring that a city housing authority does not disproportionately evict Black residents or passing regulations that prevent local banks from discriminating against Black business owners, for instance, are steps cities should be taking if they are serious about closing the wealth gap and equalizing access to their still unequal systems. It is necessary work, and Durham and every other county, city, and town in America should be held accountable if they are standing still. But they are not actions that serve as restitution for centuries of federally sanctioned enslavement. The path forward—the one that could actually allow the United States to say it has paid its foundational debt—will not be the direct product of a single task force or city council resolution. It will require countless more of such actions so that Congress will then be forced to act.