DETROIT (WXYZ) — The idea of reparations for Black Americans to address historical discrimination is not a new concept but it has long been controversial.
At the federal level, legislation introduced decades ago to explore the issue has been stalled.
However, during the pandemic, state and local governments began breathing new life into the movement and that includes right here in Detroit.
Ameera David spoke down with a lifelong Detroiter and a historian about the argument that you don’t have to go as far back as slavery to understand why a debt is owed.
For Shushanna Shakur, driving through Detroit feels like a drive through her family’s storied past.
“My grandfather came from Coffeeville, Kansas,” said Shushanna Shakur of Detroit.
Her grandfather Lucien was a bricklayer who helped construct projects like the Fisher Building and Davison Freeway.
Her mother’s cousin was the great boxing champion, Joe Louis.
In the book of her past are pages full of pride but also of pain. Her grandfather was never entitled to equal pay for equal work.
“He was not allowed to get a license and become a skilled craftsman because he was Black,” said Shakur.
While her mother’s family, like thousands of others migrating from the south, had to contend with crippling housing discrimination– nothing more notable than what Black Detroiters experienced in the first half of the 20th century – navigating segregation & racist housing policies that barred them from living in most neighborhoods.
“The policies that were in place were pushing all Black Detroiters into one community,” said WXYZ’s Ameera David.
“Yeah, it was concentrating the largest African Americans into one area,” said Jamon Jordan, a Detroit Historian.
That area, known as Black Bottom, was once home to Shushanna’s mother and more than 100,000 others.
“This is the center of African American activity,” said Jordan.
Historian Jamon Jordan says in many ways, it was thriving with Black run businesses, schools, and churches. By the early 1950s a plan was underway to demolish the 3 sq. mile neighborhood to make way for the construction of Interstate 375. Black renters were evicted. Black homeowners? Unjustly compensated.
“To what extent did that upend generational wealth?” asked David.
“Yeah, it severely impacted it because this community is the feeder for a Black business district north of here,” said Jordan. “Their customers are coming from here, the people are coming to their shops, their restaurants, their bars.”
“See this is just blighted out, it’s just gone,” said Jordan.
The street where Shushanna’s mom once lived is still standing, the home is not.
“What do you think about when you drive through this neighborhood? Do you think about what could have been? asked David.
“Yeah, definitely, and it's sad, it didn't grow, it didn't further develop,” said Shakura.
Detroit, like many cities across the country, is studying how to best make amends for its prejudiced past. The toll of slavery has long been central to the movement, but the discourse has expanded.
“Today we have more in the arsenal besides just slavery to discuss this issue, but all of the other racist policies that have created a wealth gap, a social gap, an institutional gap,” said Jordan.
“Black people in this country have suffered,” Shakura.
The proof is in the numbers. A 2019 Federal Reserve survey showing white families in the U.S. have, on average, eight times the wealth of Black families - a gap that many Detroiters believe America should attempt to close.
Reparations is a righteous movement, and it ought to happen, with calls for it to take on several different forms: Land, education, technology, and monetary.
While its understood history cannot be rewritten, the future is a blank page.
Last November, Detroiters voted yes on a proposal to launch a reparations commission that would examine how to best address historical discrimination. The group, when formed, is expected to recommend housing and economic development programs that benefit black Detroiters.