What Role Can Cities Play in Reparations? Some Aim to Find Out

As cities begin to grapple with the idea of reparations, they need to answer questions about who is eligible, and which wrongs they intend to address.

St. Paul is one of the newest U.S. cities to explore reparations for its Black residents, but it will have to grapple with some of the same questions that other cities, like Evanston, Ill., are currently exploring. (Photo by Harshil Shah / CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Since 2015, local activist Trahern Crews has run for St. Paul City Council, Mayor of St. Paul, and the Minnesota House of Representatives on a platform that includes reparations. While his bids for public office have been unsuccessful, his vision for reparations in St. Paul—where Dred Scott was enslaved at Fort Snelling before Minnesota’s statehood—is finally becoming a reality.

On January 13, St. Paul City Council unanimously voted to create a reparations commission. Formally titled the St. Paul Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission, Crews partnered with Councilmember Jane Prince, the resolution’s lead sponsor, to bring the act to the council. The immediate next step is establishing the commission over the next six months. “We want community economists and activists on the board and community members who are impacted by the racial wealth gap caused by slavery, white supremacy, and racist institutions,” Crews explains.

Minnesota at large, and the Twin Cities in particular, are home to some of the greatest racial wealth gaps in the county. In the Twin Cities metro area, the annual median income for white households in the metro area is $83,227 compared to $36,047 for Black households.

These disparities exist today in St. Paul for the same reasons they exist in cities all over the country: redlining, which denied Black residents the chance to purchase homes and build wealth; racial covenants in property deeds designed to keep white neighborhoods white; and the construction of freeways through thriving Black communities. In St. Paul, it was I-94 through the Rondo neighborhood, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s — an act which St. Paul’s new resolution explicitly apologizes for.

The resolution, which aims to begin to correct these historic injustices, is the culmination of over a year’s worth of work from a steering committee chaired by Crews that focused on outreach among Black residents and business owners to support the resolution. Crews believes that it’s important to demand more than just truth and reconciliation about the past, but to actually repair it for those who have been impacted.

He envisions a continuation of deep community involvement throughout the reparations process in St. Paul so that the commission’s actions can be informed by “actual input by people impacted by this legacy,” Crews says. He expects that the commission will look into reparations across sectors where Black communities have been held back—particularly housing and homeownership, education, and healthcare—in partnership with community organizations like churches and housing groups. “The resolution calls for organizations and institutions that have benefitted from slavery to discrimination to look internally and start changing their practices” as well, he adds.

While what reparations in St. Paul will look like is far from determined, cities like Evanston, Illinois have been at it for some time. Robin Simmons, an Evanston alderman, brough reparations to the city in June 2019 and a subcommittee, which she chairs, was started the following September. “The community must lead the reparations discussion,” she says.

So far Evanston has a fund from a 3% recreational cannabis sales tax set aside for reparations with the first $400,000 of it earmarked for housing-focused benefits for eligible residents—Black residents who lived in the city from 1919 to 1969 or a direct descendant. The fund is projected to amount to $10 million across 10 years.

While reparations can take myriad forms, Evanston plans to focus on housing-related remedies first, even though, of course, not every Black resident will be interested in homeownership. “Building wealth through homeownership is undeniable—it’s how most families, regardless of race, build wealth,” Simmons says. Because the wealth built from homeownership can then go on to fund other investments like education, the city is starting there.

The first payouts will focus on offering $25,000 to eligible Black residents for homeownership, home improvement, or mortgage assistance. The plan is to give the money to a resident’s lending institution rather than to the individual directly in order to avoid income taxes for the recipient, which only the federal government has the power to waive. Based on the city’s estimates of cannabis revenue, they estimate they’ll be able to give homeownership assistance to about 400 residents, of what Simmons imagines are several thousand eligible ones, over the next decade.

Rashawn Ray, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology and is a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institute, sees cities as having both unique opportunities, as well as some hurdles to face, in implementing reparations.

While administering reparations at the city level can be easier than the federal level since there are fewer people, it can be harder, Ray says, to determine who is eligible. “Does it matter if they still live in the city or state or not? We know that the Great Migration north was due to lynching and people trying to find more economic opportunities,” Ray says. That would make it more difficult for a Southern city to decide who is eligible for city-level reparations — let alone find the descendants of people who left.

Ray advises taking advantage of city and state programs that are already in place when considering how to dispense reparations. “For example, we have state programs that qualify people for tuition assistance. The same thing can be done for people in cities. We already know that in a lot of cities there are first-time homebuyer programs” which can be leveraged in the reparations process, he says. Grants for small business startups is another mechanism that can be leveraged for reparations.

Ray does, however, worry about programs like Evanston’s that are revenue-based. “It’s an important step and they’re trying hard, but part of the issue is that Black people have been incarcerated for weed for the last 40 years,” he says. Should they rely on “the trickle down of tax money” from the drug industry, the war against which was weaponized against Black people for decades, he wonders.

He sees reparations as a mechanism that can be used to address the many ways that African Americans have been oppressed beyond just slavery, but ultimately that deciding which wrongs they want to address will be something that every city interested in providing reparations will have to decide for themselves.

As cities endeavor to take reparations into their own hands, there are a few potential pitfalls that Ray recommends avoiding. “While the momentum is there you have to put a program in place. If you wait… by the time you figure it out, a new administration has come in or a pandemic comes in,” he says. “You have to be aggressive—there’s no way else to say it. You have to have the political will to do what’s right, right now.”

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Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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Tags: st. paulracial justicereparations

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