NC Reparation Efforts Focus On 'Generational Wealth,' Avoid Direct Payments

Aug 1, 2020

The approval of reparations for Black residents in Asheville almost three weeks ago is being followed by similar demands in cities across North Carolina.

The historic vote accepted a reparations initiative, part of which aims to provide funding to programs that increase homeownership and business and career opportunities among Black people in Asheville.

“This is an issue that diverse communities across the entire state and country will need to reckon with,” said Keith Young, one of two Black council members and a chief proponent of the measure. “It is my hope that movements like this will spread through not only our state but throughout the entire country because for this to be successful, we need to do it at a local, state and national level.”

Barely a week after the vote in Asheville, a task force asked the Durham City Council to consider similar reparations.

With a modern model in place, political science and public policy experts say it's likely that other North Carolina communities follow suit — though some reparations advocates have issues with the model being used.

Analyzing Asheville

On July 14, the seven members of the Asheville City Council voted unanimously to approve the measure, which stops short of providing direct payments to Black residents.

“It was a moral compass moment,” Young said. “The gravity and the depth of the moment we are in as a nation speaks volumes about the people representing local citizens. No matter what you agree or disagree on, the morality of this issue is what shined bright in that 7-0 vote.”

According to city leaders, the goal of reparations is to help create generational wealth for Black people, who have been disadvantaged throughout American history by disparities in income, education and health care.

As part of the resolution, the approximately 93,000-person city — 12% of which is Black — is calling on the state and federal government to provide funding for the reparations.

“The federal government took an active role in inflicting this harm on Black people, so they should also take an active role in addressing them,” Young said. “If movements like this continue, the government will realize the benefit of giving every citizen a good quality of life and equal opportunities.”

The vote in Asheville comes after nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

“A lot of issues relating to racism show how much we have not achieved and how far we still have to go in terms of what is going on with Black Lives Matter and the inhumane treatment of minorities in this country,” said Emmanuel Oritsejafor, chair of the political science department at North Carolina Central University, a historically Black institution.

“It may take a local model, like the one in Asheville, to begin to bring the consciousness level back to the mainstream of why it is important to address racism and all forms of dehumanizing behavior.”

Other advocates say the responsibility for reparations lies with the federal government.

“Real reparations” should be cash payments and investments made by the federal government to individuals, said Dawn Paige, a founder of the Triangle chapter of American Descendants of Slavery. ADOS is a national organization that “seeks to reclaim/restore the critical national character of the African American identity and experience.” 

“What you have at the state level can never and should never be misconstrued as reparations,” Paige said. “Because there are no real measures that are included that will close the racial wealth gap.”

Johnny Morant and Dawn Paige, members of the Triangle chapter of American Ascendants of Slavery (ADOS), don't think Asheville's reparations measures should be called "reparations" because they do not include cash payments.
Credit Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez / NC News Intern Corps

The federal government is the only entity with the resources to close the gap, said William Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University and co-author of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.” 

“If you were to bring the Black share of wealth, at least into proportion with the Black share of the nation's population, it would require somewhere in the vicinity of another $10 to $12 trillion,” Darity said. “If you were to take the entire budgets for all the state and municipal governments combined it's about $3.1 trillion.”

Paige, who traces her lineage to enslaved people in Warren County, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, also took issue with the broad language of the measure, specifically the term “minority.” The term, she said, dilutes the Asheville resolution by applying its efforts to people of other races, or Black people who are not descended from enslaved people.

“To us, that's just evidence of the disingenuousness of these measures because there are no minorities who were enslaved, there were only Black people who were enslaved,” Paige said.

The actual efforts the Asheville resolution hopes to accomplish, such as increasing Black home and business ownership are good things, Paige said. But she argues that they are not reparations.

“They are policies and initiatives that should've been undertaken anyway because we are tax-paying citizens, and it's unfortunate that we have to use the word 'reparations,'" Paige said. 

Minority groups in the U.S. have only been compensated for injustices a handful of times in the country’s nearly 245 years of existence.

Oritsejafor said reparations to Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II can be examined as a case study.

The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 offered compensation for real and personal property — about $37 million was paid to 26,000 claimants. Forty years later, Congress voted to provide reparations to each Japanese American survivor of internment — more than $1.6 billion was paid to more than 82,200 claimants.

“There is not one type of recommendation that could fix all, but this could be a systemic model that could be used to begin to call for reparations,” Oritsejafor said. “It is possible for others to mimic it because it provides a frame of reference and a model to follow.”

Delving Into Durham

Reparations to Black residents is one of several recommendations made by the Durham task force aimed at addressing systemic racism and human rights violations at the local level.

“This problem is so much deeper and more complex than people are making it out to be,” said Camryn Smith, a member of the Wealth & Economy subcommittee of the Durham Racial Equity Task Force. “Reparations is one of many ways to address systemic racism, which is constantly adapting. The recommendations we have made as a task force are only reflective of a small drop in the bucket of the things that Durham can do to become the city I know it can be.”

The task force is calling for the city to create a wealth equity fund which would finance projects aimed at closing the racial wealth gap. According to the document, reparations are meant to “publicly affirm that victims are rights-holders entitled to redress.”

The recommendation states that these reparations “can take the form of compensating for the losses suffered, which helps overcome some of the consequences of abuse. They can also be future oriented — providing rehabilitation and a better life to victims — and help to change the underlying causes of abuse.”

The report directly addressed the “Asheville plan to develop a local reparations program” and encouraged Durham leaders to similarly engage in the “need for such reckonings locally.”

What is not specified in the report is the exact monetary amount that should be allocated to the race equity fund. Nor is there a dollar amount specified in the Asheville plan.

“We want our city leaders to think more broadly about this issue,” said Tia Hall, another member of the Wealth & Economy subcommittee. “If we ask for a million dollars today, by the time that it activates tomorrow, a million dollars might not be as effective in a growing city, like Durham. We don’t want the overall budget of the fund to be limited. So that we’re not stuck in a fixed place that doesn’t allow for a movement.”

Hall says it may be more effective for local leaders to look into setting aside a percentage of the city budget for this fund. She wants the monetary support for the race equity fund to grow with Durham.

While discussions about reparations are usually associated with direct payments to the people affected, Hall said the task force purposefully avoided giving that recommendation.

“We didn’t want to tie the fund into a type of charity model,” Hall said. “We want to ensure the dignity of the people receiving reparations and that it’s in a way that is a part of a generational wealth building model.”

The more than 60-page report also includes recommendations for addressing inequities in the legal system, public health, education and housing in Durham.

“This needs to happen on a local and national scale,” Hall said. “Our city leaders need to push for that national work to happen and on the local level we need to look internally at our cities and states to make sure there is a commitment to undoing the centuries of harm that have been done to some people.”

The NC News Intern Corps is a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.