“By conservative estimates, the US owes black people several trillion dollars in reparations”

Wes Bellamy, deputy mayor of Charlottesville, VA, and architect of its reparations scheme. Image: Getty.

By conservative estimates, the United States owes black people somewhere between a few and several trillion dollars.

The origins of this enormous debt will forever mystify those committed to not knowing about the monstrous chain of events that lead to it. For the rest of us – those who find a bedtime story version of history too costly or too boring to endure – the reasons are as obvious and unavoidable as a mallet to the face in broad daylight: a half millennium of gothic cruelty inflicted on black Americans by the country their toil made possible.

Still, a single question hovers over any mention of the debt owed to these unacknowledged architects of America. Yes, that sounds good in theory, but how the hell would it actually work?

No doubt the challenge is often made by folks genuinely curious as to how such a massive and complex scheme would unfold in the real world. There’s also no doubt that, just as often, it enters a room via someone already scanning it for the nearest exit.

It’s curious, after all, that the “How the hell?” brigade never gets around to endorsing Congressman John Conyers’ H.R. 40, a resolution in the House of Representatives whose entire purpose is to study and develop answers to this very question. That’s a shame, because it is a vital one.

Lucky for us, the struggle to carve out a navigable pathway to reparations is being pursued as we speak. In states and cities especially, programs sharing a common intellectual ancestry with reparations have emerged, making it increasingly difficult to look the other way.

Take Charlottesville, Virginia. Right now, perhaps, it seems like an unlikely candidate for pushing a reparations package. Yet right before a powder keg of white supremacist lunacy erupted there, the city council, under the leadership of deputy mayor Wes Bellamy, passed a $4m equity package to address the history of social and economic hardship piled atop the city’s marginalised communities, most especially in its centers of black life.

With his city standing on the brink of infamy for the terror soon to be unleashed, Bellamy appeared on Democracy Now! to paint a city on the verge of a very different historic moment:

“And in the midst of all of this, we also got an equity package passed, which I presented in January… which gave us $950,000 to our African American Heritage Center, $250,000 to build onto one of the parks in the local African-American community.

“We got $2.5m to public housing redevelopment, $50,000 annually for anyone who lives in public housing to get free GED training, another $50,000 to anyone who lives 80 percent below the AMI, which is the annual median income, as well as public housing, to have scholarships of sorts to go to our local community college. We got a position for black male achievement, which we’re calling a youth opportunity coordinator…

“In all, it was about $4m, basically, from funding, put specifically into marginalized communities to help bridge the gap and create equity.”

While the city isn’t calling this reparations, the real world kinship between the two is unmistakable. The equity package, like reparations, is an attempt to improve material life for an injured class of people.

In this, it must be said, Charlottesville has thrown a pebble at the colossal edifice that is American white supremacy. This  is not a denunciation: just the opposite. For those who call the city home, who live and toil in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, the effort could make all the difference.

But to be clear: there is no substitute for a national reparations program. What horrors the country collectively authored, the country must collectively repair. And whatever your flavour of horror, the United States has racked up an enormous debt. The nation may continue to scoff at its obligations, but the debt, detailed carefully across an extensive scholarly record, is one that no one who thinks themselves honest can look past and hope to retain that quality.

In the meantime, cities and states have become laboratories of sorts, experimenting with different reparations models in response to organised public pressure. As we speak, programs are underway in states from Virginia to North Carolina and cities from Charlottesville to Chicago.

Chicago, for instance, has now payed out over $5m in reparations to victims of what amounted to a covert torture ring run by the city’s former police commander. This isn’t the way we typically think about reparations – that is, direct compensation for the monstrous and enduring legacy of America’s original sin of slavery. But it is an effort, much like Charlottesville’s, to chip away at a debt of public injury. In doing so, these city-level programs also expose the utter insincerity of those who argue that calls for reparations are unworkable fairy tales that serious people know to be impossible.

From a strategic standpoint, it’s not surprising that the road to national reckoning might run through these smaller arenas of political contest. Not only do they tend to be easier for vocal and well-organised activists to influence. But efforts to hold cities and states accountable for their own legacies of public injustice are powerful sources of experience for national campaigns that hope to do the same.

And as we search for pathways out of the seemingly endless forest of horrors we find ourselves in, it's important that stories like these be told – ones that may not blaze a trail out of that misery, but perhaps provide some light and direction along the way.

Eli Day is a Detroit-based writer and activist.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.