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Reparations legislation is stalled in Congress. Can local governments fill the gap?

The Racial Redress and Reparations Lab, a part of the university’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, is designed to provide community education and engagement that paves the way for successful repair and recognition projects. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

A bill to explore reparations for slavery in the United States has been sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives for nearly a year, with no signs that legislators will take it up any time soon. But policymakers in many communities aren’t waiting for the federal government to take action—they’re taking matters into their own hands. And a new reparations lab at Northeastern aims to give them the tools to do so.

The Racial Redress and Reparations Lab, a part of the university’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), is designed to provide community education and engagement that paves the way for successful repair and recognition projects.

Broadly, reparations represent a system of redress for egregious injustices. So, what would they look like in 2022?

“When a lot of people think about reparations, they think only about money,” says Katie Sandson, program director for the Racial Redress and Reparations Lab.

Katie Sandson is an attorney and the program director for the Racial Redress and Reparations Lab at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The money is important: The first instance of reparations in the U.S. was an (unmet) promise of 40 acres and a mule to former slaves as the Civil War drew to a close. And today, the average white family in the U.S. has 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family, according to The Brookings Institute. But the systemic oppression of Black people in the nation goes far beyond cash. The federal government redlined Black families out of fair housing opportunities for generations, and excluded Black students from educational opportunities.

“From a restorative justice perspective, reparations can be a lot broader than that,” Sandson says, “although financial compensation can and should be an important piece of it.”

Indeed, while H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a 13-person federal commission to study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination in the country and recommend “appropriate remedies” languishes in Congress, policymakers throughout the country are exploring local options for redress.

In March 2021, city councilors in Evanston, Illinois, voted to make reparations available to Black residents for harm caused by “discriminatory housing policies and practices and inaction on the part of the City,” according to the program guidelines. Black residents who experienced housing discrimination in the city can apply to receive $25,000 in housing benefits.

“The benefit of state or local programs,” such as Evanston’s, Sandson says, “is that policymakers can tailor the response to the particular needs of their communities.” She explores how else communities might begin to repair historic inequities in a conversation with News@Northeastern that has been lightly edited for clarity.

Beginning at the beginning, why are reparations important?

It’s been pretty well established that state-sanctioned racism in the U.S. dates back to, but certainly didn’t end with, slavery. The CRRJ provides a small piece of evidence for that history, with a focus on 1930-1970, particularly the extent of racial violence during this time period and the role of governmental institutions enacting and upholding discriminatory and violent practices. 

Even though we at the CRRJ are focused on the southern and border states, we understand that this history is both national and local, and affects communities in different ways. The work by CRRJ provides irrefutable evidence of the wrongs that have been committed and it provides evidence for the legacies of intergenerational trauma and wealth-loss that continue to affect families today.

From a restorative-justice perspective, it’s important that the same institutions are acknowledging this history and the ways in which it affects the present, but also taking tangible steps toward repair. Reparations, broadly defined, can be an important piece of that restorative process and of our larger national reckoning with that history.

What does that repair look like in 2022? What is the lab’s goal?

At CRRJ in particular, we approach this idea of redress by drawing on principles from the fields of restorative and transitional justice that center on the affected individuals and communities, and prioritizes accountability, healing, and repair.

I think when a lot of people think about reparations, they think only about money. But, from a restorative justice perspective, reparations can be a lot broader than that—although financial compensation can and should be an important piece of it. For example, a reparative project might also include components like apology, acknowledgement, and truth-seeking processes, as well as compensation. Most importantly, reparative processes should be driven by the communities that are most affected.

What we’re seeing right now is a lot of movement at the state and local levels. Legislators introduced H.R. 40 at the federal level, and state and local efforts are not a replacement for federal action, but they can and should complement these federal efforts. We believe this is something all policymakers can and should be involved in, and what we’re seeing (and what we hope we’ll continue to see in 2022) is that the urgency of the calls for reparations at the community level is being reflected in the responses by policymakers, and seeing that momentum continue to grow.

One benefit of state or local programs is that policymakers can tailor the response to the particular needs of their communities. For example, we’re seeing Evanston, Illinois, get a lot of attention as one of the first local governments in the country to move forward with a reparations program—they’ve decided that their first initiative is going to target the history of housing discrimination in the city. That doesn’t mean it’s the only thing they’re going to do around reparations, but it’s where they’re starting because of the particular history of the city.

What are some of the common challenges municipal policymakers encounter?

A lot of these challenges are similar to the challenges that state and local governments face with many other policies these days. Funding is always a big one: Where is the money going to come from, and what’s feasible in a given jurisdiction? Political will can be challenging too, especially when you’re dealing in a society that’s very divided and a topic that’s very divisive. Community engagement is a big piece, too: Policies should be shaped by the people who’ve been most affected by this history and will be most affected by the policies. How can policymakers most effectively get those voices in the room and ensure they’re helping to drive the process?

Calls for repair aren’t new, they date back to the post-slavery moment, but I think we’re in a moment now where the topic is gaining unprecedented public and governmental support, and that momentum is playing out in public debate, private institutions, universities, and in government. This is happening all across the country—we’re seeing these conversations in big cities, small towns, in the Midwest, the South, the West. They’re small steps, not all of these efforts have passed or will pass, but it’s movement, and that’s hopeful.

For media inquiries, please contact Marirose Sartoretto at m.sartoretto@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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