A majority of Detroit wants reparations for Black residents. What happens next?

A protester at a rally in Detroit on June 4, 2020, over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis the week before.
A protester at a rally in Detroit on June 4, 2020, over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis the week before. (Paul Sancya/AP)
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As Detroit moves ahead with a plan to provide reparations to Black residents, a recent survey sheds new light on Detroiters’ perceptions of racial inequality, and the role the government should play in addressing such issues.

According to a March survey conducted by the University of Michigan's Detroit Metro Area Communities Study and the Center for Racial Justice, about 63% of Detroit residents support some form of reparations and about 70% say addressing racial and ethnic inequality should be a high policy priority for elected officials.

The survey comes after a successful 2021 campaign led by Keith WIlliams, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus, to make Detroit the first city in the country to include a reparations initiative on the ballot. The initiative, called Proposal R, would create a reparations task force to make recommendations on housing and economic development to address the decades of discrimination and inequality that Black Detroiters endured. The proposal passed with 80% of the vote.

“We didn’t go to the legislative body, we went to the streets and we got the energy from the streets,” Williams, who is also co-chair of Detroit's Reparation Task Force, told Yahoo News. “Now we have to get everybody else to buy into what we’re trying to do.”

The 13-member task force has been charged with determining how, exactly, the city will implement and fund its reparations program, and who will be eligible. Among its responsibilities are investigating the devastation tied to the legacy of slavery and the perpetual damage of the Jim Crow era, and producing short-, medium- and long-term recommendations for housing and economic development programs aimed at creating and boosting opportunities for Black Detroiters.

Traffic flows on I-375 near downtown Detroit
Many Detroit residents still mourn the loss of vibrant Black business and entertainment districts that were leveled to make room for Interstate 375, above, and other infrastructure projects of the 1950s. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Williams says it’s not just about a simple payout or job, but about leveling the playing field of something Black Americans have been largely left out of: the American dream.

“I don't want to leave any Black person behind in Detroit,” said Williams. “They should have access to a good education, quality health care and a chance at wealth. I can’t speak for the whole task force, but that’s my goal, that we level the playing field, with things that matter to the average African American citizen.”

Ahead of the task force’s first meeting on April 13, researchers at the Center for Racial Justice wanted to get a deeper understanding of Detroit residents’ support for reparations and their perceptions of racial inequity more broadly.

“COVID, George Floyd, inflation, all of these things, I think all of these crises ... are shifting public perception about the role of government in both preventing and also, kind of, just easing the instability of everyday life,” Jasmine Simington, who co-authored the report, told Michigan Radio.

According to the survey, “although most Detroiters support reparations and view policies that address racial inequity as a high priority, there is significant variation in Detroiters’ level of support for reparations based on their perceptions of racial inequity.”

The survey revealed that about 70% agree that the legacy of slavery and discrimination continues to affect Black Americans and are more likely to support reparations, compared with 30% who disagree. A substantial majority of Detroiters, 71%, also believe that the average Black person is worse off than the average white person when it comes to income, wealth and overall finances. Those people are more likely to support reparations compared with residents who do not believe the average Black person is worse off.

Protesters in Detroit in the days following the police killing of George Floyd
Protesters in Detroit in the days following the police killing of George Floyd. (Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images)

Although 13% of those surveyed said they oppose reparations, just over 40% of those who were opposed said that addressing racial and ethnic inequality should still be a high policy priority for the local government.

“These findings underscore the stakes of current debates about how U.S. history is presented and understood,” the report’s authors wrote.

Detroit, which is home to almost 500,000 Black residents, about 78% of its population, is one of the poorest major cities in the U.S., with over a third of its residents living below the poverty line.

In a resolution supporting the ballot initiative, Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield cited the historic racial disparities between whites and African Americans that need to be addressed, such as discriminatory housing practices, as well as inadequate access to clean water and sufficient sanitation.

During the 20th century, Detroit was the epicenter of the American auto industry, earning the nickname “the Motor City.” Three of the country’s biggest car companies — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — were all based in the area. Jobs at the plants attracted a rapidly growing population of Black people moving from the South starting in the 1910s, during what is known as the Great Migration.

But, as Williams pointed out, the Black community was often met with resentment and discrimination as they tried to settle into the city.

“When Blacks came from the South to work at Ford Motor Company, we had no place to stay,” Williams, a lifelong Detroiter, said. “We were renters. We owned businesses, but we were renting from somebody else and we could never have home ownership. We never got what we were supposed to get like everybody else.”

An African American worker on an assembly line at the Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, near Detroit, in 1946
An African American worker on an assembly line at a Ford Motor plant in Dearborn, near Detroit, in 1946. (AFP via Getty Images)

Many neighborhoods adopted restrictive covenants to keep Black families from purchasing or renting property. As a result, Detroit’s Black residents eventually established their own neighborhood in an area known as Black Bottom, which, by the 1950s, was home to several Black-owned businesses, entertainment venues and other social institutions.

However, within a matter of years, Black Bottom would be demolished, along with an adjacent neighborhood known as Paradise Valley, in order to construct a major highway, Interstate 375. The project, completed in 1964, displaced 130,000 people as well as hundreds of businesses and churches, kicking off an era of economic decline for the Black community that continued into the latter part of the century, when many of the city’s plants and factories were shuttered.

“When they ran I-375 through the community, it just destroyed everything for Black folks,” Williams said.

In March 2022, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced plans to replace I-375 with an urban boulevard to activate economic development and create easier access to neighborhoods that had been cut off by the highway. In September, the Biden administration awarded Detroit $105 million in a grant from the Department of Transportation for the project, which includes the construction of a 190,000-square-foot structure featuring a hotel, housing units, a conference center and a business collaboration space, among other things.

“We must build up our state's infrastructure with equity at the core,” Whitmer said in a 2022 press release. “While we cannot change the past, we must work harder to build a more just future, and that starts with listening to and engaging with the community, and taking deliberate steps to get this done right."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaigning in Detroit, Nov. 4, 2022. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

But Williams questioned whether elected officials in Michigan like Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who are white, are the right people to lead such an initiative.

“Now they want to resurrect 375 and bring the flavor back to Black Bottom, but who is it going to benefit?” he asked. “They’re trying to bring it back to the people, but it shouldn’t be led by someone who doesn’t look like me, but led by the people who were harmed like me.”

He pointed to the work of Black community leaders like Robin Rue Simmons, a former alderwoman for Evanston, Ill., who spearheaded her own city’s reparations campaign. In 2019, Evanston set aside $10 million in cannabis tax revenue that would give about 400 Black people a $25,000 housing voucher program to address racial inequities in housing. This is the first phase of the Evanston Reparations Committee initiative.

Other cities, such as San Francisco, Asheville, N.C., and St. Paul, Minn., have also taken steps toward providing different forms of reparations for Black residents.

“It’s time for the country to come to grips with what happened to Black folks,” Williams said. “You can’t repay for the lost lives or the broken hearts, but you can repay for some of the money that was taken from us and the wealth that was stolen from us.”