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June 19, 2023

Philly City Council considers forming a reparations task force. What does that mean?

If the measure is approved Thursday, the task force would be created and its members would study Philadelphia's role in U.S. slavery, recommending compensation for Black residents with enslaved ancestors

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Philadelphia Reparations Screenshot/YouTube

Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, above, and Kendra Brooks introduced a resolution last week that would create a reparations task force in Philadelphia. If adopted, it would study the city's role in U.S. slavery and recommend payments or other compensation for eligible Black residents.

Philadelphia City Council will consider creating a reparations task force next week, a move that would make this the latest U.S. city to explore payments and other compensation to Black descendants of enslaved Africans.

The resolution to create the task force was introduced at Thursday's meeting by Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier and Kendra Brooks. If it moves forward, the group that forms would study Philadelphia's role in the slave trade, and ultimately develop proposals for reparations for Black city residents whose ancestors were enslaved in America. Council is expected to vote on the measure at their next meeting on Thursday, June 22, which is the last session until mid-September.

Gauthier and Brooks argue that problems like gun violence and poverty in Black communities can be traced back to slavery and the discriminatory practices that followed its end in the U.S. in 1865. For more than a century after emancipation, Black Americans were denied housing loans or leases under redlining policies, offered poorer education through segregated public schools and incarcerated at roughly five times the rate of white Americans.

"Not only were reparations never made for American slavery, since then, the government has played a role in carrying out racist policies that have cheated Black people out of wealth and opportunity," Gauthier said Friday. "And I don't believe we will be able to move forward in the way that we deserve until that sin is made up for. I think it's really important not only in terms of what happened in the past, but in terms of our ability to truly be a free and equitable society in the present."

The proposal followed months of discussions with the Philadelphia chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. N'COBRA outlines five "injury areas" to be redressed on its website, including education, wealth/poverty, criminal punishment, personhood/nationhood and health.

Reparations for those injuries could include direct payments or land, but N'COBRA also advocates for scholarships, development of museums or monuments, school textbooks that emphasize a Black perspective on slavery in America and the exoneration of political prisoners.

Gauthier and Brooks cite census data from 2016 which found that 30.8% of Black Philadelphians lived in poverty, more than double the 14.8% of white city residents who did. A 2020 study also found that Black business owners were only awarded about 11.5% of city contracts, despite more than 40% of Philadelphians identifying as Black.

Mariana Chilton, who runs the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University, believes that reparations are "the number one way to address household food insecurity, and all of the health problems and social problems associated with deep poverty." In 2020, she testified before City Council that reparations should be added as a line item to Mayor Jim Kenney's budget proposal.

"No amount of food stamps or little city attempts to supposedly address poverty by helping people get a housing subsidy here or there is gonna really address the deep generational issues," she said. "The health problems that we see today are rooted in the history of colonization and slavery."

A 2022 study co-authored by two other Drexel researchers, Jourdyn Lawrence and Jaquelyn Jahn, found that reparations could help Black Americans live longer. When the racial wealth gap was closed by a direct payment, simulations showed, the so-called longevity gap between the average lifespans of  white and Black individuals shrank, as well — from a median of 4 years to 1.4 years in some models, and -0.1 years in others, suggesting a very slight reversal of the life-expectancy gap.

In an emailed statement, Lawrence and Jahn said they "fully support" the resolution to create a reparations task force, which they believe "will begin a process of documenting the violence experienced and the political and economic benefits gained from the enslavement of Africans in Philadelphia" and "offers an opportunity to understand how those practices continue through a legacy of structural racism, specifically how those practices maintain existing inequities experienced by Black communities."

While there are currently no federal reparation programs in place, individual cities and states have attempted similar measures in recent years to mixed results.

New Jersey established a wealth disparity task force in 2021, but bills introduced to create a statewide reparations task force have languished in Trenton. California's task force will release its findings to the state assembly later this month, while San Francisco's board of supervisors is currently considering over 100 recommendations, including $5 million payments to every eligible person.

In Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, the city council voted to create a $10 million reparations program with money from its newly created marijuana tax in 2019, but has only paid out $400,000 as of January.

If the Philadelphia resolution is adopted next week, it would also face a long road to actual reparations. Gauthier said she would spend the summer planning the particulars of the task force, aiming to get it set up during the fall 2023 legislative session. Potential members include historical researchers, local politicians and community leaders. If their eventual recommendations point to legislation, Gauthier said she will introduce it, though the result could be "a partnership" with the mayor's office, she said.

"I think the entire country has a role to play in making sure that reparations happen," Gauthier continued. "I am a City Council person, so, you know, I'm using my platform on City Council to push this forward, but I don't think it's just Philadelphia. I think it's cities across the country, state and federal governments, as well. 

"I represent black communities across West and Southwest Philadelphia, who are in our present time suffering the impact of systemic racism that was never addressed. And that really began with American slavery."

This story has been updated with a statement from Jourdyn Lawrence and Jaquelyn Jahn.

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