'Opportunity to do the right thing': Lawmakers Johnson, Thanedar push for reparations bill

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Democratic State Reps. Cynthia Johnson and Shri Thanedar made an impassioned plea on Saturday in their push for a bill package that would create an African American reparations fund for Michigan.

“Michigan has the opportunity to do the right thing,” said Johnson, standing in what was once an underground railroad hiding room inside Second Baptist Church on Monroe Street in Detroit.

Johnson said she was moved to submit the bill in January after seeing millions in incentives awarded to large companies.

“We, as legislators, we see monies that are going places that will never reach the people and we say nothing,” she said. “That’s unconscionable.”

State Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, speaks Saturday about the reparations bill package she introduced earlier this year that would create a Racial Equity and Reparations Fund.

The legislation for the proposed Racial Equity and Reparations Fund Act has not yet received a hearing in the Republican-led state House.

The House bills, 5672, 5673 and 5674 call for $1.5 billion in federal dollars placed in the racial equity and reparations fund within the state’s treasury.

The funds would be issued to various state departments and agencies to provide grants, loans and other economic assistance for businesses and economic developments that promote the African American community, according to the bill.

Money for the fund would come from 13% in surcharges levied under the Michigan Strategic Fund Act and other sources, Johnson said.

“We’re not asking for monies to go into anybody’s individual hands,” she said. “We’re not even asking the taxpayers to pay this. This bill would require any business, like General Motors, Ford Motor Company, any of the other businesses that come to the state of Michigan and ask for money. Those businesses would be required to pay a surcharge up front.”

State Rep. Shri Thanedar said Saturday that people need to admit that America and Michigan owe a debt to Black citizens.

The introduction of the bill comes as a city of Detroit task force begins the process to make short-, mid- and long-term recommendations about what kind of reparations should be sought for Detroiters. In November, 80% of Detroit voters approved creating a reparations commission.

Johnson said she's received some pushback about presenting the bill at the same time the issue is being discussed in Detroit and during an election year.

“We just have to work together,” she said.

Thanedar said Saturday people need to admit that America and Michigan owes a debt to Black citizens.

“Reparations are about making up for the generational wealth that was stolen from the Black community,” he said. “They’re about making up for depriving people of home ownership and community investment specifically on the basis of their skin color." 

"More than anything," Thanedar continued, "they’re about providing equal opportunity. The reparations fund will allow Black Michiganders to invest in homes, stock, retirement savings and more to help build generational wealth. It will also help build a safety net to protect families from economic recession that always disproportionately impacts communities of color. These bills will not solve everything, but they are an important piece of the puzzle.”

Senior Pastor Lawrence Rodgers of Second Baptist Church spoke briefly Saturday showing his support for the reparations effort. He said he’s received questions from those concerned about what people would do with the money.

“If you owe me money, if you owe my ancestors money, you owe my great grandparents money, that money belongs to me,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what I’m going to do with it. We’re going to invest it. We’re going to use it wisely. We’re going to build generational wealth.”

Johnson noted the racial disparity when it comes to business ownership in Detroit. While the city has a 78% Black population, 10% of businesses with employees are Black-owned, according to data from 2020 Census data and Detroit Future City’s Center for Equity, Engagement and Research.

“We are actually descendants of slaves,” she said. “That’s nothing to just bypass. There’s a lot of things that happened because of that. We have the lack of jobs, we have a lack of homes. ...  It was our government that did that. It’s our government who is going to have to change this.”

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN