“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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CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.