Urban Wire From Emancipation to Reparations, Ensuring Black Americans Can Enjoy Economic and Social Inclusion in the United States
LesLeigh D. Ford
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For nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many enslaved Black Americans continued to endure the unspeakable horrors of chattel slavery. It was not until Union Army troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 that more than 250,000 enslaved African Americans in the state were finally notified of their freedom.

As we celebrate Juneteenth, now a federal holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans, we are reminded not only of this long-delayed freedom but also how it was limited thereafter to prevent Black Americans from pursuing full economic inclusion, social equality, and full civic participation.

In a recent Urban Institute publication, we document how Black Americans and their ancestors, from enslavement to the present day, endured forced displacement; forced, unpaid labor; social and economic deprivation; systemic racism and violence; inequities in the criminal justice system; inequitable processes, outcomes, and gaps in homeownership; and predatory lending. Nationally, efforts to rectify centuries of mistreatment and abuse have gained momentum, with bills introduced in the House of Representatives and US Senate that would establish a commission to study long-standing racist policies and their effects and develop proposals for a comprehensive solution: reparations.

The call for reparations for Black Americans is based in the need to provide appropriate restitution to Black Americans for their labor and production that created valuable products, services, and systems but who were denied the opportunity to amass and pass down wealth because of anti-Black policies and practices. Although these bills are still gaining support, local and state governments in places such as Asheville, North CarolinaDetroit, Michigan; Evanston, Illinois; Providence, Rhode Island; and the State of California have already begun to address and evaluate the effects of racist municipal and state policies on wealth building for Black Americans and their descendants.

These local and state efforts can offer many lessons to other policymakers, including how local governments can fully engage community members, follow-up with program recipients to learn about the impact of the reparations payment or action, and coordinate across localities to advance progress on persistent historical inequities.

But for these efforts to truly endow Black Americans with full economic, social, and civic freedom, reparations policies must include both monetary compensation and transformative solutions that address the structural causes of racial disparities.

A comprehensive vision for reparations requires more than cash payments

In the popular imagination, reparations are often thought of as cash payments to make up for long-ago harms. But neither half of that picture is accurate. For one, these harms aren’t all decades-old. In California, there are several recent cases where land owned by Black families was stolen by individuals or seized by municipal governments by eminent domain. And research suggests that compensation and new investments for Black Americans and black-owned businesses, such as including both monetary compensation and policy changes, can have greater effects.

In 2023, the California Reparations Task Force released a 500-page report documenting the atrocities committed in California against Black Americans (PDF). Beginning in 1850 and continuing to the present, the report includes recommendations for a formal apology; calculations of reparations; forms of compensation and restitution; and a set of policies designed to address different elements of enslavement, racial terror, housing segregation, and other harms enacted upon Black Americans in the US, including mental and physical harm and neglect (PDF).

Among recent local and state efforts toward documenting the need for repair, conceptualizing the scale of the investment necessary, and a developing a framework for implementing reparations for Black Americans, the California Task Force’s report is the most comprehensive effort to date.

Compensatory and transformative reparations must be coimplemented

In the California Task Force’s recommendations, both compensation, which often includes direct cash payments to individuals and communities, and transformation—which examines and makes provisions and recommendations to address the ways racial harms and trauma affect the emotional, psychological, and overall well-being of Black Americans—are outlined. Transformative reparations approaches could include funding for scholarships, fellowships, and other ways to support Black students pursuing the higher education denied to their ancestors; funding for mental health services; public campaigns that raise awareness and educate citizens about community building; and programs that promote belonging and inclusion among Black Americans.

As more local commissions and task forces emerge and advance agendas to repair racial harm related to housing, health, education, and other policy areas, it’s imperative that commissions take a transformative approach. These localities should consider using appropriate measures for past and ongoing harm, developing methods to project the potential outcomes of a reparative program, considering what structures are necessary to determine eligibility, and establishing whether single-domain approaches are appropriate to repair long-standing racial harm.

But this work shouldn’t be the responsibility of governments alone. Our recent brief on how social scientists can help advance a national reparations research agenda examines the role researchers can play in evaluating program models and policies designed to address enduring harms. We need new research that explores the potential effects and outcomes associated with reparations approaches instead of just the possible costs of different models.

Although the federal government would need to play an outsize role in fulfilling the promises of Emancipation and reparations, to ensure Black Americans can enjoy the full scope of the freedom promised to other Americans, it’s also the responsibility of states, localities, researchers, philanthropy, and the private sector.

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Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Black/African American communities Racial and ethnic disparities Racial barriers to housing Racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice Racial equity in education Racial homeownership gap Racial inequities in economic mobility Racial inequities in employment Racial wealth gap State programs, budgets Structural racism in civil society and civic participation
Policy Centers Office of Race and Equity Research
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