Could Boston provide reparations? City councilors are pushing for a commission to study it

Boston is the latest city to assess the possibility of repairs. Two Boston city councilors, Julia Mejia and Tania Fernandes Anderson, are part of a group that has tabled a proposal to create a new 15-member panel that would investigate the long-term effects of systemic racism and how Boston can right the wrongs that still hurt African Americans today.

The two joined Saraya Wintersmith, for Arun Rath, on GBH All things Considered Friday to discuss the goals of the proposed commission, what they are saying to critics who argue reparations are unnecessary and whether there is political will to explore the issue in Boston. The following is a slightly edited transcript.

Saraya Wintersmith: To start, tell me, what is the end goal with this commission? Are you both hoping to see Boston Blacks paid off once all is said and done?

Councilor Julia Mejia: It’s important for us, you know, to note that we’re taking it one step at a time. Our current goal is to establish the commission so that it can get to work exploring proposed reparations for African Americans here in the city of Boston. And ultimately, the conditions that make reparations necessary are the result of government interference and public policy. So as a conception of the restorative process here, it’s crucial for us – as elected officials – that we literally step back and listen to the voice of the people. And in this particular case, the voice of the people has made it clear that they want a reparations commission.

Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson: I think, according to Julia, we don’t necessarily specify exactly what it looks like right now. For example, the whole point of the commission is to be able to study, investigate and create the conditions for the structure of what it would look like in the future.

Winter Blacksmith: Some might say that Boston, because it was one of the first states to kind of end slavery and it has this reputation of being extremely progressive, is one of the cities that did the least harm to black residents. What do you say to those people who think Boston owes nothing to anyone, or that the reparations conversation is pointless?

Mejia: Well, you know, I really don’t think it’s up to us to tell victims of systemic racism what they’re going through in our cities that are among the least “harmful” to black residents. The fact is that there has been damage, and we need to be able to move beyond this idea that conditions that require repair are now a thing of the past.

You can draw a line between Massachusetts’ involvement in slavery and the economic, social, and political inequalities we see here today. You know, for example, the merchants of Boston – and everyone who used free labor – profited enormously from black slavery, which led to more property and generational wealth for white families. And today, the net worth – and we already know this – for a black family here in Boston is just $8, compared to $247,000 for white families.

So reparations, in my humble personal opinion, are not limited to slavery. Economic segregation in our city continued to thrive throughout the 20th century and continues to this day. So the point is, the conversation goes beyond slavery if we look at the continued economic repression black residents face here in the city of Boston.

“We have established that racism here in Boston is a public health crisis. We have the data.

Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson

Winter Blacksmith: Councilman Fernandes Anderson, I want to address you. Seems like what Councilor Mejia is describing is kind of systemic. Do you meet many people who are confused about the concept of systemic racism? And what do you tell them?

Fernandes Anderson: I mean, whether or not the confusion is a reality is another conversation. But my answer is always we go to the numbers, right? So to echo Councilor Mejia’s point, it’s not just about slavery or whether or not the Commonwealth was established after the era of slavery, but rather about the perpetual cyclical systems that have been put in place. We talk about segregation, then redlining, that even the bus itself had its own problems. And now we’re in, you know, the 80s with the crack epidemic and all these issues – and how the system treated the marginalized community, the poor working class or blacks and browns in general versus the rest of their counterparts.

So I think for people who say, you know, “Boston is so progressive, it’s not a reality here,” we’ve established that racism here in Boston is a public health crisis. We have the data. It’s not an argument about whether or not these systems were perpetuated by systemic racism, it’s a matter of people coming to the truth for us to reconcile and fix. And I think that’s what the commission would do.

Winter Blacksmith: If you join us, we’re talking with Councilors Julia Mejia and Tania Fernandes Anderson about their proposal to establish a commission to explore the possibility of reparations in Boston. Ladies, I would like to ask you both: As you well know, the African Diaspora is large and varied. Who are we talking about exploring reparations for?

Mejia: It is, I believe, it is the commission’s job to seek answers to this. It’s not an easy answer to just say “All these people” or “These people but not these people”. You know, it will be a long process, I believe, which [is why] we are staffing and budgeting the commission to make sure they can explore issues like this. In the end, we all know why, but what repairs look like, in my opinion, is not up to us. It really depends on the commission.

Winter Blacksmith: Councilor Fernandes Anderson, I want to give you an opportunity to jump in here in case you have something to add.

Fernandes Anderson: Yeah, I mean, I think – to be very clear – black Americans have always had the small end of the stick when it comes to economic mobility or systemic racism. And I think the immediate answer is: the African-American people. We can then adapt that, or condition that a bit, to Councilor Mejia’s point. It is because, if we say that the commission should carry out a study, we cannot yet present ourselves as experts. We know there is a need, so we are making a proposal and we should wait for the studies to determine how it is carried out.

Mejia: You know, can I add one more point before you move on to the next question? I just want to emphasize how important it is for listeners to recognize that this whole initiative is truly led by those who live the realities and do the work. And, you know, a lot of times the government is still setting the agenda, and it’s really an opportunity for us to not replicate the dominant white culture and insert ourselves in a way that’s going to be even more harmful. And that’s why it’s so important for us to create space for the commission to set its own agenda.

Winter Blacksmith: And advisers, is there a political will for something like this right now? I know that at least six of your Council colleagues have signed on as sponsors for this play, and if they all vote to move this play forward, you have the votes to send it to the mayor. Have you been in touch with Mayor Michelle Wu to find out if she would support this?

Mejia: So, you know, in terms of political will, you know, political will is created when there’s a lot of public attention to action on a particular issue, and we’ve seen that particular issue has attracted a lot attention. There is certainly interest in exploring this topic further, and I believe it is now our job as advisors to take that interest and turn it into action.

And as far as Mayor Wu, from some of the things I’ve seen in the press, is that she’s open and interested in how the work is going. And I believe – right now, given her equity program – I believe she will look favorably.

Winter Blacksmith: Councilor Mejia, Councilor Fernandes Anderson, thank you very much for being with us.

Fernandes Anderson: Thank you very much.

Mejia: Thank you.

Winter Blacksmith: We spoke with Boston City Councilwomen Julia Mejia and Tania Fernandes Anderson. It’s GBH All things Considered.

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