Detroit City Council approves reparations measure, but challenges lie ahead


Black activists rally against racism next to an Underground Railroad monument in Hart Plaza in Detroit. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • Black activists rally against racism next to an Underground Railroad monument in Hart Plaza in Detroit.

Black Detroiters moved a step closer to receiving long-awaited reparations for systemic racial discrimination, but the historic measure still faces legal and funding uncertainties.

The Detroit City Council unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday that would give residents the opportunity to vote on whether the city should “establish a Reparations Committee to make recommendations for housing and economic development programs that address historical discrimination against the Black community.”

Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, who sponsored the proposal, called the vote “a monumental step forward” that will “move the conversation from talk to action and towards making amends for the most egregious discriminatory and racist practices of the past.”

“Ultimately, this is about repairing the damage done to the African American community and leveling the playing field so the aggrieved have an equal and real opportunity for success and a better quality of life,” Sheffield said in a statement.

The resolution states that Black residents “have been systematically, continually and unjustly enslaved, unjustly segregated, unjustly incarcerated, denied housing through racist practices in the public land use arena as well as private realty markets.”

The language of the ballot initiative must now be approved by the Detroit Election Commission, which includes city Clerk Janice Winfrey, Council President Brenda Jones, and city attorney Lawrence Garcia.

“I’m hopeful and confident that this honorable body will keep this momentum moving in the right direction and certified the language for the placement on the ballot in November’s election,” Sheffield said. “Reparations is long overdue and major cities across the country have their eyes on Detroit and we could serve as a catalyst for a broader federal effort in the not so distant future.”

Even if the Detroit Election Commission approves the ballot language, the initiative faces an uncertain future. There are still questions about how the measure would be funded if voters approve it. The Michigan Constitution bars the use of tax dollars for racially exclusive purposes. And a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2006 prevents preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity.

Some supporters have proposed using funds from recreational marijuana sales to fund reparations. But the city isn’t making any money from cannabis. A federal judge last month struck down a recreational marijuana ordinance, saying it’s “likely unconstitutional” because it gives preferential treatment to longtime Detroiters.

In the first half of the 20th century, local and federal authorities reinforced racial segregation by creating laws and policies that confined Black people to small, overcrowded, and dilapidated neighborhoods with dire housing conditions, substandard schools, and inadequate city services. In 1947, when African Americans were fleeing the Jim Crow South in droves, less than 9% of the 545,000 housing units in the Detroit area were available to Black people, according to Tom Sugrue's book The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

Many of those areas became magnets for industrial polluters, where factories continue to spew harmful emissions.

In the 1950s, then-Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo campaigned on a platform of “Negro removal,” which was a pledge to force Black people out of predominately white neighborhoods. Cobo also denied federal funding for housing projects for Black residents and oversaw the construction of highways that decimated Detroit's historic Black communities, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

When white residents flocked to the suburbs in the late 1960s, neighborhoods were abandoned, and the city’s tax base eroded, leaving inadequate funding for schools, housing, transportation, and other services. Factories closed down and moved to the suburbs.

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