Asheville, a city of roughly 93,000 people in Western North Carolina, 12 percent of whom are Black, is the first to take a step in that direction with a reparations initiative that will provide funding to support programs geared toward increasing local Black homeownership and career and business opportunities.
The Asheville City Council on Tuesday evening unanimously approved the measure, which stopped short of stipulating direct payments to its resident, something usually associated with reparations.
City leaders, who apologized for the city’s role in and support of slavery, said they have a long-term goal of helping build generational wealth for Black people, who have been unfairly disadvantaged by income, educational and health care disparities due to racial inequality.
The move in Asheville comes in the wake of by the killing of George Floyd, which prompted nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Americans are confronting race relations head on, with conversations taking place about just how much should be done to make amends for slavery and other historical racial injustices perpetrated against Black Americans. Invariably, the debate about reparations has become part of the discussion.
During demonstrations across the nation, Confederate and other statues viewed as racist or white supremacist have been either toppled or taken down by local governments, and lawmakers from the city to the federal level are pushing for law enforcement reforms.
At the same time, there has been renewed call by some members of Congress to create a commission to study the impact of slavery and to make recommendations for reparations.
Some are hopeful that Asheville could open up the possibility of reparations on a larger scale.
The idea of reparations has its roots in the Civil War. As hostilities were nearing an end in 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman promised to redistribute a large tract of Atlantic coastline to 40,000 recently freed slaves as a placed to start their new lives in what would become known as “40 acres and a mule.”
Months after Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order, returning the land to its former owners, after which Congress passed a bill to compensate Black Americans, which was vetoed by Johnson.
Since then, reparations have paid in rare circumstances. Under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, Japanese-Americans who were placed in internment camps during World War II received reparations of $20,000 each. And, in 2015, the city of Chicago approved $5.5 million in reparations for a group of black men tortured by the police in forced confessions in the 1970s and ’80s.
Sweeping reparations have been granted elsewhere. Since 1952, Germany has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to Jewish victims of the Nazi regime, with payments ranging lump-sum payments to individuals to a monthly pension based on years victims worked in slave labor camps.
Representative John Conyers, a long-serving Democrat from Detroit, Mich., and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus who died in 2019, introduced a bill on the study of reparations every year from 1989 until he resigned in 2017.
A lack of political will and the large number of African-Americans to be compensated — a huge financial burden — make the prospect of reparations unlikely. More than two-thirds of Americans oppose reparations, according to Gallup polling. In the face of strong opposition, President Barack Obama in 2016 said that he considered the idea of reparations to be an impractical solution.
Even so, the idea of reparations could once again be gaining some political traction.
The Providence Journal reported that mayor of Providence, R.I., has just signed an executive order to start a “truth telling and reparations process” for African-Americans, and in California, a bill setting up a task force for reparation proposals was passed in the state Assembly in June and is currently being considered by the Senate.
Only time will tell if reparations have any chance of becoming reality for most African-Americans. For now, they remain a pipe dream.