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What would reparations for slavery look like in Minnesota and the US?

St. Paul’s push to explore reparations for descendants of Black slaves and victims of discriminatory housing practices represents a newer type of push on the issue.

File: Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial
The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial is on the corner of Second Avenue East and East First Street in downtown Duluth. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were lynched in Duluth on June 15, 1920.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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ST. PAUL — The city of St. Paul is beginning the process of taking public input on a program to provide reparations to ancestors of slaves and Black homebuyers who faced discriminatory housing policies.

This is the first time a city of this size in Minnesota has taken such a step.

Starting this month, a committee will hold community sessions to zero in on the best way for St. Paul to redress historic discrimination that city leaders say caused disparities between Black and white residents in homeownership, education, health care and overall prosperity.

Reparation is a controversial topic in America and has long been considered to be a politically unrealistic goal. For generations, political activists have advocated for policies such as direct payments, scholarships and home loan assistance for descendants of Black slaves in America. With the prospect of federal legislation on the issue still on the distant horizon, some city governments have taken it upon themselves to explore their own policies with the aim of righting past wrongs.

Here’s a look at policies elsewhere in the U.S., where the debate stands, and steps Minnesotans have taken to reckon with the state’s history.

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What have other cities done?

In 2019 the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, became what many called the first city in the U.S. to introduce a reparations program for Black residents. Using a tax on recreational marijuana sales, the city set up home loan assistance for Black residents. The program was widely hailed at the time as the nation's first reparations program, but it was not without critics. Some activists said the reparations scheme had flashy packaging but ultimately held little promise to help Black city residents, the Guardian reported in August 2021.

Most government efforts so far have been exploratory in nature. In 2021 Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a group of 10 other mayors including St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter announced their intentions to explore options for reparations and develop programs. Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity said it was the largest-ever coalition of mayors committed to supporting federal reparations legislation and creating local reparations programs.

Over the past year, the mayors have formed exploratory committees for reparations, including Asheville and Durham, North Carolina, which have already both pledged millions to future reparations. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones approved a city bill in April allowing residents to voluntarily pay donations toward reparations in their taxes , the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

cst 39649 Mayor Carter press conference.jpg
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter speaks at a news conference on the rising gun violence in the city Sunday, May 2, 2021.
Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Political reality?

While the subject of reparations for Black Americans has been discussed since emancipation and the end of the Civil War, the idea has long seemed politically unrealistic in the U.S. The issue gained renewed energy and discussion in 2014 when The Atlantic published journalist Ta Nehisi Coates’ argument in favor of reparations . In his now-famous article Coates calls for a discussion of reparations that takes into account "Jim Crow" laws and racial segregation. He also addressed housing discrimination such as "redlining," a practice where lenders would designate certain areas of cities as "high risk" for mortgages, which often discouraged investment in Black neighborhoods. Areas on maps designated as high risk were often encircled with a red line.

Recent polling indicates that cash reparations are still deeply unpopular with the American public. A 2021 study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst found two-thirds of Americans and 90% of Republicans opposed providing reparations to the descendants of slaves. A strong majority of Americans 18-29 supported the policy, as well as Democrats, who favored reparations by 64%.

Common criticisms of reparations include the feasibility of funding and running a program, and claims that the murkiness of history makes determining responsibility for past injustices unclear. Supporters of reparations argue that the American system itself was built on past injustices, making the question of specific responsibility less relevant.

Lawmakers at the state and federal levels have introduced reparations legislation. Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced a bill to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans who have been affected by slavery and discrimination. The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee last year, and in February Jackson Lee told Politico it could soon get a vote on the House Floor.

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In 2022, Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul introduced a similar reparations bill in the Minnesota Legislature that would provide funding to explore the possibility of reparations for the descendants of slaves in Minnesota. The bill has not had a hearing this session and is unlikely to see movement in the Legislature.

Steps in Minnesota?

The conversation in Minnesota has generally centered on past interactions between settlers and the native tribes that originally occupied the region. Universities and colleges in Minnesota and the Dakotas have made symbolic gestures, including official statements acknowledging their campuses sit on the ancestral lands of the Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples, for instance.

In October 2021 the Duluth City Council approved a resolution asking Congress to investigate the impact of the boarding schools Indigenous children were forced into from the 1870s to 1970s as the federal government worked to erase their culture. Part of the resolution mentioned the possibility of exploring reparations to tribes affected by the schools.

While not an act of reparation for slavery or racism, Atlantic contributor James Fallows in 2014 called Duluth's memorial to three black men lynched in the city in 1920 "in the spirit of the reparation" Coates wrote of in "The Case for Reparations." The personalized monument takes the first major step of acknowledging rather than hiding a terrible chapter in the city's history, Fallows writes.

St. Paul’s push to explore reparations for descendants of Black slaves and victims of discriminatory housing practices represents a newer type of push on the issue.

Reparations proposals don't always take the form of direct payments to the ancestors of those who experienced oppression or discrimination. St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood was a center of the Twin Cities Black community before the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1950s and 1960s gouged a rift in the neighborhood from which it has not recovered, city officials have acknowledged. Urban planners have developed a plan to build a “land bridge” that would cap off the freeway and reconnect the neighborhood at a cost of $458 million, according to planner estimates.

Related Topics: ST. PAULRACISM
Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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