“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money.” Supposedly said in the mid-60s by Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, it underscored the astonishing growth of federal spending … then.
Now? Trillion-dollar programs seek to heal an ailing American economy and populace with the hurt being felt severely by communities of color, people nearing the prospect of being homeless and people attempting to survive loss of jobs, education and health care.
It sounds like a staggering leap made with the announcement of the just-passed 1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill — a godsend, indeed, but in reality, it is a Band-Aid trying to give cover to a country hemorrhaging with issues well beyond that of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic shut down.
I kept that in mind as I viewed a recent webinar titled “Remaking the Economy” initiated by the NonProfit Quarterly Magazine. The subtitle for the discussion was more pointed: “Closing the Racial Wealth Gap and the Case for Reparations.” Panelists discussed the role nonprofits, philanthropy, local governments and communities at large must play in supporting policy and conversation about reparations, and in closing the racial wealth gap.
Reparations for Black people in the U.S. is an oft-discussed concept that received a big lift in mid-2006 with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” Reparations are right for a nation needing to formally admit and atone for slavery and centuries of racist policies and the costs — economic and otherwise — painfully borne by Black people to this day.
An ignored federal bill, HR 40, was initiated in the House to address reparations but has languished in D.C. for nearly 30 years. So, what can we do at the state and local level? I suggest that the Seattle City Council take this issue on, build on the broad community support and outrage and take the same strong actions we have seen with other social issues.
Yes, Mayor Jenny Durkan, in late 2020, joined with mayors across the country to support HR 40. “I continue to believe that reparations are one important part of the answer to government-sanctioned discrimination against our Black community. Unfortunately, decades of discussion have not translated to concrete action or even consideration of H.R. 40. New voices have galvanized and coalesced to push forward on the urgent and unmet needs stemming from our nation’s original sin — slavery,” Durkan said.
Indeed, this was courageous action by our mayor, and yes, decades earlier, then-Mayor Nickels did help make a difference in federal policies toward climate change. But reparations, an issue left unsolved by the broader public, will be far more severe than any other issue America addresses.
So, Seattle councilmembers, look what Durham, North Carolina, accomplished: A city one-third the size of Seattle, with a Black population of 39% versus Seattle’s 7%, created a race-equity taskforce that produced a two-year study and a 60-page resolution calling for a Federal Reparations Program to address the centuries-old wealth gap that impacts Black communities across the country.
The resolution calls for immediate federal action to remedy the racial wealth gap, create a universal basic income and increase the federal miserly wage, oops, sorry, the minimum wage, to $15 or higher, and to provide federal programs with living-wage jobs.
Communities across America need to take the same bold action as Durham. Yes, the cost will be beyond COVID. A book written by one of the panelists, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for the Black Community in the Twenty First Century,” put the cost at $267,000 per person, for each of 40 million Black descendants of slavery: $10,680,000,000,000.
Not Dirksen’s billions — trillions, folks, trillions. But this is the steep cost to repair the inequitable slope our nation has built and reinforced ever since it began.
Read more in the Mar. 17-23, 2021 issue.