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As Juneteenth becomes a federal holiday, the US needs a culture of reparations

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There is a widespread belief that reparations for Black people is too tough a pill to swallow for most Americans. Even those who support reparations say we should pursue only a narrowly tailored congressional act, eschewing smaller-scale, municipal, state, and institutional programs.

Such self-imposed limitations dismiss the legitimate claims for real damages that states, cities, universities, churches, and companies inflicted on Black Americans. This week, as we celebrate Juneteenth, we should recognize that there is a way to change the cultural attitude toward reparations—and it might already be occurring.

This March, the city of Evanston, Ill. approved the country’s first municipal reparations program, providing housing grants of $25,000 to cover mortgage costs, down payments, and home improvements for Black residents injured by the city’s past redlining practices. In 2020, Asheville, N.C. passed a “community reparations” program, which endeavors to invest in Black neighborhoods. In the same year, the town council of Amherst, Mass. approved a resolution to engage in “a path of remedy” for Black residents “injured or harmed by discrimination and racial injustice.” States such as CaliforniaVirginia, and Maryland are also moving in this direction. In 2019, Georgetown University students overwhelmingly approved the addition of a $27.20 per semester tuition fee to help pay reparations to the descendants of the slaves the university sold in the 1830s.

In the fight for reparations, we should not assume that opposition to reparations will stay constant, therefore necessitating a rigid, political approach to the issue. According to Gallup, in 2002, only 14% of Americans were in favor of reparations; less than 20 years later, in 2019, 29% of all Americans supported them.

This growing support is both a byproduct of local activism and political pressure as well as a reflection of changing attitudes. Such change has been spurred by an awakening on the racist origins of the United States, beginning on the backs of enslaved Black people and continuing with the devaluation of Black property and life.

Like most policy agendas, reparations won’t come from Washington, D.C. It will go to the nation’s capital, as the local initiatives described above demonstrate. These initiatives signal a change in culture, and encourage a shift that will eventually deliver a comprehensive reparations plan to Congress.

How do we know this? We’ve seen it from the opposite side—how a culture of white supremacy influenced policy.

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In 1910, racist attitudes baked into Baltimore’s housing policy became a model for federally backed redlining and other racist housing policies across the country. Baltimore’s then mayor J. Barry Mahool’s negative view of Black people was laid bare in his explanation of the municipal policy: “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighbor- hoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”

While federal policies in the 1960s and 1970s officially banned such racist housing practices, Black people are still burdened in ways that manufacture and cement de facto redlining. For example, homes in majority-Black neighborhoods are worth 23% less than homes of similar quality in neighborhoods with very few or no Black residents. After accounting for factors such as housing quality, neighborhood quality, education, and crime, owner-occupied homes in Black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000 per home on average—amounting to a whopping $156 billion that these homeowners would have received if their homes were priced at market rates.

A long-standing culture of white supremacy in the United States has repeatedly pushed aside equitable and democratic laws and practices in favor of systems of exclusion, devaluation, and suppression. However, culture does change; in fact, we are witnessing it right now.

A culture that’s supportive of reparations for anti-Black policies is emerging, as evidenced by the local initiatives in Evanston, Asheville, Amherst, and Georgetown University. Four out of the top 15 books on The New York Times nonfiction best seller list are about race and racism in America. Progress is even occurring on the federal level: For the first time in the 30-plus years since the late Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced H.R. 40—a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations—the legislation finally made it out of committee this April.

To be clear, we will always have to beat back racists and racist policies. However, a reparative culture that embraces anti-racism and equity can shift the balance of power in those political fights. Just as white supremacist culture gave birth to slavery, redlining, and segregation, we can develop a new culture that recognizes human worth, fairness under the law, and restorative justice.

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