Advocates for reparative policy argue 'we can do better' at Mackinac Island conference

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — An expert panel on Tuesday argued for reparative policies to tackle long-standing inequities, stressing "we can do better" to a packed room at the Mackinac Policy Conference. 

Anika Goss, CEO of Detroit Future City joined with Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and founding director of Institute on Race and Police Economy at The New School for Social Research, and Brookings senior fellow Andre Perry for the hour-long talk moderated by Kim Trent, deputy director of prosperity for Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

The panel talk centered on policy decisions and discriminatory practices that contribute to the racial wealth gap and comes ahead of a Nov. 2 ballot question in Detroit over whether a reparations committee should be formed to study ways to boost opportunities for Black residents. 

Anika Goss, CEO of Detroit Future City, speaks on a panel with (left) Darrick Hamilton, Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy and (right) Andre Perry, Senior Fellow at Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. The panel was moderated by Kim Trent, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

The reparations resolution is the first of its kind to reach Detroit's City Council. 

The issue has 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 three decades. It has yet to reach a floor vote.

In Detroit, the issue of reparations, how they would be doled out, in what form and who would pay for them is being debated among Black Detroiters. 

Hamilton said during the Tuesday talk that society will never move forward from racism until reparations are addressed. 

"If we want to have solutions, we need to honestly grapple with reparations," said Hamilton, adding that alone "is not enough."

"...we need a government that promotes anti-racist economic rights that ensures that people have a birthright to capital, quality housing, quality health care," he said.

The panel focused on research from Detroit Future City on the impact of race and economic inequity and the role that public and private sectors can play going forward.

At least 54% of African American middle-class families live outside of Detroit, which means, Goss said, that "Detroit is not a place that's cultivating prosperity."

"What's problematic is that Detroit is still 78% African American," Goss said. "So we end up concentrating areas in Detroit of such deep poverty that you can't move to prosperity. The only jobs that grow in the city are low-wage jobs so that our education attainment then becomes limited to only finishing high school so you can work at this low-wage job and you just can't achieve prosperity in that way."

Goss added she finds it "disturbing" only six of Detroit's 11 middle-class neighborhoods grew in the most recent U.S. Census and "only because upper, middle-class white families moved in."

She noted targeted investments in the city's downtown, Midtown as well as "stable" neighborhoods like Indian Village. 

For the rest of the city, opportunities for middle-class families where housing can be stabilized and where small businesses can grow are needed "without that gentrifying factor," she said. 

Hamilton said change will begin when "somebody's race or ethnicity no longer has transactional value."

"We can do better," he said. "If we value education, we should provide it without debt for all our people."

Perry has conducted research on housing and authored the book "Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities."

Through his work, he found homes in Black neighborhoods are underpriced by 23%, about $48,000 per home, "cumulatively, that's about $156 billion in lost equity," he said.

Goss said when thinking of reparative policy, triggering data from Detroit Future City showed the value of a loan in Detroit is half of a small business outside the city.

"If, in Detroit, people are starting a half a step behind and have been for 15 years, how can we build equity?," she said. "What's required is reparative policy so everyone can achieve access to the capital they need."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_