Detroit City Council votes to add reparations committee question to November ballot

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved adding a question to the November ballot to ask city voters whether a committee should be formed to consider reparations for residents. 

The council's proposed question asks: "Should the City of Detroit establish a reparations committee to make recommendations for housing and economic development programs that address historical discrimination against the Black community in Detroit?"

The resolution will now be passed to Detroit's election commission to determine if the legal requirements for inclusion on the ballot are met. If so, the measure will be sent to the county clerk for placement on the November ballot, said David Whitaker, director of the council's legislative policy division.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield gives her remarks on black empowerment, peaceful protesting and protecting the city during the rally, Monday, June 1, 2020, at the Detroit Association of Black Organizations.

Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield sponsored two resolutions on reparations that acknowledge African Americans have been "systematically, continually and unjustly enslaved, segregated, incarcerated, denied housing through racist practices and redlining."

To combat it, Sheffield recently told The Detroit News, the city must create a process that would develop short- and long-term reparations recommendations in a bid to create generational wealth as well as boost economic mobility and opportunity for Black residents.

The resolution regarding reparations was the first of its kind to reach Detroit's City Council, Sheffield noted.

"Historically, we've been faced with discriminatory policies, and there are a lot of things that have caused African Americans to be left out, and locked out," Sheffield has said. "This is an idea to right the wrongs and to begin to look at some of those injustices that we faced."

Following George Floyd's death, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 presidential election, conversations about reparations resurfaced. The developments prompted Sheffield to meet with members of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus, City Planning Commission and Reparations Taskforce. They asked for the proposed question to be on the ballot, Sheffield said, to gauge the interest of residents.

The council could have formed its own reparations committee, but it was essential to get voter input to showcase the demand, said Keith Williams, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus.

"I"m so excited ... we've worked on this since February. They gave the citizens of Detroit a chance to vote on their future and now, we can truly fix our neighborhoods and grow our businesses," Williams said following the Tuesday vote. "The Detroit council did a fantastic job today."

Lauren Hood, chair of the City Planning Commission, said the next step is launching an education campaign, noting "there's plenty of people who have mixed views on what it means."

"What we are deciding on isn’t what to give to people, we’re deciding on a process that analyzes what happens and addresses conversations on what would make people who have been harmed whole again," said Hood, adding she speaks for herself and not on behalf of the commission. "Who would reject that?”

Councilman Scott Benson questioned if the ballot initiative would restrict the committee's work to housing or economic programs, but Whitaker said the "term is broad enough to go with the nature of the research that's done by the committee ultimately."

Reparations for slavery have gained national momentum this year after a U.S. House committee advanced for the first time legislation to study reparations for Black Americans that former Detroit U.S. Rep. John Conyers reintroduced to each Congress over 30 years. It has yet to reach a floor vote.

Congress previously didn't act on the legislation as critics questioned a causal link between slavery, segregation and today's racial inequities.

But reparations — how they would be doled out, in what form and who would pay for them — is being debated among Black Detroiters, some of whom said they detest the talk of what some would perceive as a handout for grievances and discrimination from decades ago.

► For subscribers:Reparations movement gains momentum in Detroit

The proposals aren't seeking "a handout," Sheffield previously said. 

"It's about providing that access and equity to ensure that lift Detroiters to better economic opportunities," she said. The measure would "begin to explore how that could possibly look in our city," she added.

While the Duggan administration understands and supports the intention of the effort, the magnitude of addressing the impact of slavery must come from the federal level, said Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett Jr.

"The resolution is to create an investigatory process to assess, catalog and understand the damages associated with slavery as they evidence themselves in the city of Detroit," Mallett recently told The News. "The funding of a response is going to be something that will have to occur at the federal or state level."

"The bottom line is, the size and the scope of the response that a genuine investigation associated with reference reparations would require would have to be based on federal initiative and, at the very least, from the state of Michigan."

Across the nation, Detroit joins city councils in Asheville, North Carolina, and Evanston, Illinois, which have passed resolutions for reparations within the last year. There are also pending reparations initiatives in St. Paul, Minnesota; Durham, North Carolina; Providence, Rhode Island, and California.

In March, the Evanston council approved the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program, granting qualifying households up to $25,000 for down payments or home repairs using funds from the city's Reparations Fund established by the council two years earlier.

However, the proposed measure could bring some legal concerns over how it will be funded.

Under the Michigan Constitution, taxpayer money can't be allocated to a specific race. A 2006 voter-approved constitutional amendment bans programs in public hiring, public employment and public education that "give preferential treatment to" or "discriminate against" individuals on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity or national origin. 

But Williams, a former Wayne County Commissioner, said the hope is to establish the committee first and potentially derive funding from marijuana sales.

"Historically, issues in Detroit have stemmed from zoning laws and ordinances that were caused by the city council, just like they were in Evanston," Williams said. "They passed resolutions in support of using reparations to address issues in Evanston and now we're bringing that same notion to Detroit."