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"The Big Payback"

The purpose of local reparations

Ellen Rolfes Feb 25, 2023
Heard on:
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

A majority of Black people in the U.S. want reparations for slavery and subsequent discrimination and disenfranchisement. But when you get into the nitty-gritty of what “reparations” means, consensus is harder to come by.

Who’s eligible? What does “sufficient repair” look like? Do local efforts count, or is a big national push the only way? 

In the documentary “The Big Payback,” we see residents of Evanston, Illinois, debate these questions, and the same debates are playing out across the country in other communities considering reparations.

“There’s tremendous need for local reparations as opposed to waiting until federal reparations and then we try to put all these structures and policies and programs in place,” said Kamm Howard, who helped support Evanston’s local reparations efforts.

Howard, the founder of Reparations United, has worked on national reparations for decades and has been working on local reparations efforts in Chicago. He also wrote and published “Laying the Foundation for Local Reparations,” a framework for communities based on his experience. 

To wrap up our monthlong look at “The Big Payback,” newsletter writer Ellen Rolfes got Howard on the phone to talk about defining “reparations” and what communities should know before considering their own programs.

The following interview has been edited. 

You were featured in the film “The Big Payback.” What was your role in the Evanston reparations?

In 2020, I had led a local [reparations] initiative in Chicago, where we passed a local reparations subcommittee for the city. Because of that, I was working with Robin Rue Simmons [who led Evanston’s reparations efforts], you know, advising her around some things. There were a lot of challenges around whether local reparations was reparations, and then whether or not the housing initiative [in Evanston] was reparations. So, I gave her a lot of background on exactly what reparations is so she could combat that. I helped her craft statements [to defend against] all of the naysayers and challenges in Evanston, but also around the country.

Do you think that the reason that there have been a lot of naysayers to local reparations is because people don’t understand what reparations are?

That’s exactly right. That is it in a nutshell.  When people say that redress can only come from the federal government, it excuses some 40%, 50% of the harms that have been committed after enslavement. And it doesn’t align with international law either. Any aspect of a state [or nation] — that can be federal, regional or local — that wrongs a group of people in the ways that America has wronged people of African descent bears responsibility and has an obligation for redress.  Look at a state like Alabama. After enslavement, 80% of the state’s income was based on convict leasing. The state of Alabama has tremendous culpability.  Look at cities that have engaged in tremendous wrongs against people of African descent. In Evanston, you know, there were many wrongs, but the first one they looked at was redlining. Look at a city like the one I’m in, Chicago, and the tremendous police terror for centuries. Certainly, there should be redress for those wrongs.  

Criticisms of local reparations along those lines, I’ve often thought, were more of a political concern over how local efforts would impact national reparations. What do you think about that?

What I tried to do in my pamphlet, “Laying the Foundation for Local Reparations,” was identify the four purposes of local reparations. The first purpose was to present a greater foundation and push for the federal legislation, just like the sit-ins and the civil disobedience in the 1960s. The next purpose was that local reparations acts as an emergency triage. You can’t do everything right away, but you do what you can to stop the bleeding. You just save as many lives as you can until you get into a hospital or you can get, you know, greater resources brought to the emergency environment or situation. So local reparations acts as triage to a Black community. Thirdly, local reparations provide proven programs and policies that the federal government can scale up once the federal government begins its actions, things like the Evanston housing initiative.  Finally, local reparations provide structures that can initiate and direct federal resources in a way that only local players can.  There’s tremendous need for local reparations as opposed to waiting until federal reparations and then we try to put all these structures and policies and programs in place. Now we have programs, we have policies, we have structures already ready for these national resources to be distributed in a quick, fast, meaningful, and hopefully a way that produce long-term benefits and goals.

So, in addition to remedying the harms done, local reparations are also a form of preparation for national reparations? 

Right. And, you know, in local reparations, the resources are not there to [provide a full] remedy. In San Francisco, they want $5 million [paid to each Black resident] — that’s not going to happen. They just don’t have the budget. You’re not going to do everything on a local level. That’s why I say that it’s more of a triage situation than you trying to do full repair at the local level. 

Do you see people mischaracterizing programs as local reparations when they don’t meet the definition? 

Reparations is targeted resources to correct or repair a crime committed by the state against Black people. We use Black people, particularly, because there’s cause for Indigenous reparations, which we’re not against, but you can’t connect that with what we’re doing.  The key component is, does it redress a historical or current crime that’s being targeted toward our community? If it does, it’s reparations. And so, there are some things that are regular public policy, but when it’s purposefully targeted at our community to repair the harms of the past, then it’s reparations. 

So a reparations plan that allows white people or Indigenous people to benefit, like what Providence, Rhode Island, has passed, would not be reparations then. 

That would be something that we would reject as reparations for crimes committed against [Black people]. You can look at what happened to Indigenous people, which was horrible, the genocide and the ongoing discrimination that they face from the federal government. However, they have a Bureau of Indian Affairs, they have received multiple forms of reparations. Sure, their reparations are not completed, and they should continue to struggle for that. But you cannot connect what this government has done to Native Americans to what this government has done to African Americans.  And you can’t include white people at all in that. Has this government harmed groups of white people? Yes. However, reparations for crimes committed against African Americans are just that, resources targeted to make amends for centuries of wrong, and nothing else and no one else can be included in that who did not go through the collective injury that we went through.

What do you think that people underestimate about the process of developing and implementing local reparations? 

People underestimate the necessity of a leader, a legislative leader, who truly has adopted this notion of repair for historical crimes against the Black community and understands that without these resources, the challenges we face will go into the future into infinity.  We underestimate the necessity of a committed leader, someone like a Robin Rue Simmons, someone like Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee [a Texas Democrat]. I don’t think there’s any person in Congress who has the strength and depth of understanding and such a commitment to this reparations legislation as Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Certainly, we wouldn’t have been where we are at without her, her leadership. And now, the direction is to propel the president to pass the legislation through executive order. And, certainly, she’s leading on that cause as well.

Have you watched the film yet?

“The Big Payback” is available to stream for free on PBS.  Check out all our past selected films on our website. 

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