The reparations movement gains momentum, but major challenges remain

A person holds a copy of the book Songs of Slavery and Emancipation
Experts in Mills College at Northeastern University’s Black Reparations Project say there are still significant barriers to reparations becoming more widely adopted, including active political efforts to limit or silence conversations around Black history and race in states like Florida. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

This summer could be a historic one. Final proposals for California’s first-of-its-kind statewide reparations program will be submitted by July 1, kickstarting the legislative process for what could be a monumental shift in the lives of Black Americans across the country.

Reparations, which include a broad array of policies, payments and efforts to address the historic and ongoing impact of systemic racism on African Americans, have never been more at the forefront of the conversation in the U.S.  But even as efforts gain momentum in states like California and communities like Evanston, Illinois, significant hurdles remain.

One of the biggest roadblocks for reparations is a lack of understanding about what reparations are and what they’re designed to do, say experts at the Black Reparations Project. Based in Mills College at Northeastern University, the BRP is holding its virtual Black Reparations Conference on Feb. 24.

“A lot of folks who are resistant to the idea of reparations are thinking that it’s a cash grab,” says Darcelle Lahr, BRP co-chair and professor of business practice at Mills. “It is so much broader and deeper than that. There are so many aspects of dehumanization, so many aspects of subjugation that are represented in slavery and all of the other mechanisms that have been put into place throughout U.S. history that we’re trying to address with this conversation.”

Reparations have been a part of the political conversation for decades––federal bill H.R. 40 has been kicked around the House of Representatives since 1989. However, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the movement found new life. Policymakers at the federal, state and local levels started to investigate what reparations could look like. 

In some cases, that means direct cash payments to African American descendants. In others, it takes the form of policies, like Evanston’s restorative housing program, that are designed to address specific systemic injustices in housing, education or criminal justice. In every case, reparations involve more than just free cash. Kerby Lynch, a government consultant for Ceres Policy Research and activist in the California reparations movement, has seen firsthand, these programs involve extensive research and careful design before they even get onto the floor of a state legislature.

“There’s actually a legal framework to it,” Lynch says. “We’re actually assessing the damages of government actions, like the 2008 mortgage crash. It’s not like giving away anything to Black people, but [determining] what are the damages and the lost opportunity?”

But a more general lack of understanding around reparations persists, says Ashley Adams, co-chair of the BRP and acting director of public policy at Mills. Even in California, which established a reparations task force in 2020 that will produce a final report this year, there are questions about why a non-slave state should be instituting reparations. The task force’s preliminary report found that as many 1,500 enslaved African Americans had made California their home by 1852. More importantly, the task force reported that the state government had, throughout its history, perpetuated systemic racism through seizure of property, discriminatory housing policies, mass incarceration and over-policing. 

“When we think about racism as a system, you have to think about every aspect of life and how we function as a society,” Adams says. “Pretty much any area of social policy is something that needs to be investigated for reparative justice.”

However, in other states, Adams says the biggest challenge is active attempts from conservative politicians to limit or silence conversations around Black history and race in America.

Over 30 states have introduced some form of legislation prohibiting discussion or trainings on race and racism, discrimination, oppression and white privilege,” Adams says. “Just to be able to have that conversation is the first step for healing and reparative justice.”

A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed a chasm in support of reparations that was largely along racial lines. The majority of U.S. adults (68%) oppose reparations, according to the survey. More importantly, only 18% of white people surveyed said they support reparations, while 77% of Black people surveyed supported reparations.

This gap, fueled by the legislation and political maneuvering in states like Florida, makes it difficult to even engage in the conversation Adams and her colleagues want to have.

But even in states and localities that are exploring options for reparations, there are ongoing challenges in the pursuit of restorative justice. 

A major issue, Kerby says, is that there is not a single model for reparations. Each community, city and state has to find what works best to address any injustices in its own specific context. But that also means there is not a single way to fund reparations, a major point of conversation in every legislative discussion.

“We have models like Evanston, Illinois which uses the cannabis industry, but in California the cannabis landscape is very shaky right now,” Kerby says. “There isn’t a lot of profit and growth in taxes, so is that a viable option?”

Direct cash payments––and the method for determining descendancy––are also contentious parts of the conversation. One recommendation from the California task force was a $223,000 Black “housing wealth gap” payment, but Kerby says the conversation at the state level has focused much more on policy changes than financial restitution. 

Kerby argues both are necessary elements but that there are more creative ways for legislators to think about rebuilding Black wealth and opportunity. 

“If you’re a descendent of slavery, can you get a tax break?” Kerby says. “If you’re in a redline community, can you get some type of adjustment to your property tax?”

The co-chairs of the BRP are hopeful that progress will be made, whether it’s through ongoing efforts at the federal and state level to pass legislation or through efforts to bring together activists and thought leaders. But it won’t be easy. Lahr says it’s important to acknowledge that the harms of the past are the injustices of the present, giving reparations a level of urgency.

“Because of the fact that discrimination and subjugation are embedded in our systems and in our institutions, these subjugations continue to cause harm simply by the systems working the way that they are designed,” Lahr says. “The magnitude of the problem, the breadth and depth, is so great that the problem perpetuates itself even without conscious effort, plus we have the conscious effort on top of that.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.