In the face of scant federal action, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones has joined a group of U.S. mayors trying to spur Congress to act on a topic that has languished for decades if not centuries: reparations for descendants of U.S. slaves.
Jones is one of 12 mayors or former mayors to make up “Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity,” which is backing creation of a federal commission to study and “develop reparation proposals for African-Americans.”
While one expert on reparations said he fears local efforts will give Congress an excuse to not act, the mayors’ group website said the panel is trying to move the needle “with action and advocacy that points toward justice.”
Founded and co-chaired by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti -- who leads a city of nearly 4 million people that is nearly 9% Black -- the group was announced last week, just as President. Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth the nation’s newest federal holiday.
The mayors’ group, which includes Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, is expected to develop individual pilot programs that can “serve as high-profile demonstrations for how the country can more quickly move from conversation to action on reparations for Black Americans,” according to the group’s website.
Garcetti reached out to Jones in mid-May, according to mayoral spokesman Nick Dunne, weeks after she became the first Black woman to serve as mayor of the Gateway city.
"Black Americans don't need another study that sits on a shelf," Jones said in a statement. "We need decisive action to address the racial wealth gap holding communities back across our country."
The mayors’ group pledges support for H.R. 40, a measure initially introduced as H.R. 3745 in 1989 by the late Michigan Rep. John Conyers, now championed by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). It would create a reparations commission to study the matter.
The mayors’ group also plans to form an advisory committee or commission made up of members of local, Black-led organizations to formally advise each mayor on an approach to reparations — including options to seek public and or private funds to back pilot programs.
Eventually, the mayors hope to “lead development and implementation of a pilot reparations program targeted at a cohort of Black residents.”
No timetable was given and Dunne said Jones’s involvement is still in the early stages.
It’s not yet clear if Jones plans to tap members of her stimulus advisory board - which offered suggestions on how best to spend federal stimulus dollars -- to also serve on the reparations committee's advisory panel. It’s also not clear where the money will come from for the reparations committee’s work.
The commitment from the mayor, Dunne said, is to start the process.
Unlike stimulus payments that have put cash in the hands of Americans battered over the past 15-months by the global Coronavirus pandemic, scholars and other equity advocates see reparations in terms of redressing wrongs that are centuries old.
In their book From Here to Equality, co-authors William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen argue that “the cumulative, intergenerational effects of American racial injustice is the gap in wealth between blacks and whites,” a yawning chasm the two see as being at least $11 trillion wide.
Darity told The American he fears “that the state or municipal initiatives will lead to precedents that will result in no federal policy at all—since opponents will say it’s already happened in scores of cities across America—or [in] a federal policy that will fall far short of eliminating black-white wealth disparity in the United States.”
Local initiatives to improve racial equity such as those launched in the Chicago suburb of Evanston and in Asheville, NC, “definitely are a good idea, but they should not be called nor confused with reparations,” he said.
“We insist that the term reparations be reserved for a comprehensive policy of redress for black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States,” Darity and Mullen said in an opinion piece in BlackStarNews.com. “Specifically, black reparations must refer to a project that eliminates the nation’s staggering racial wealth gap.”
In 2019, the median white household owned $188,200 in wealth—nearly 8 times that of the median Black household at $24,100, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.
The wealth gap, experts say, comes from years of unequal access at almost every level of society -- from unequal access to quality healthcare, a fact laid bare by the pandemic, to unequal access to education and housing.
Christopher Tinson, chair of the African American studies department at Saint Louis University, said he applauds the local efforts but feels that addressing a bill-due in the trillions of dollars, and crafting a plan that can result in an increased ability for wealth creation for African Americans, will take federal action. And that’s been slow in coming.
He noted that the House measure calling for reparations study has languished for decades. The bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee in April for the first time since Conyers, who died in 2019, introduced it.
“Hopefully, hopefully, these can be promising [mayoral] efforts that lead to something larger, that the federal government actually can actually embrace and get behind and fund,” he said.
“I’m not that hopeful on that front, but I love these local efforts,” he added. “Because these local officials have begun to take this issue seriously.”
Karen Robinson-Jacobs is The St. Louis American / Type Investigations business reporter and a Report for America corps member.